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American Heroes

10 most highly decorated Americans since 9/11

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Since 2001, only 10 American warriors have earned more than one of the nation’s top three combat valor medals, meaning they were recognized for displaying the highest levels of battlefield heroism on more than one occasion. A list of 10 most highly decorated Americans was drawn from the Military Times Hall of Valor database, is affected by many factors. For one thing, only one of the troops received the nation’s most prestigious combat award, the Medal of Honor – most likely because, in today’s military, recipients rarely return to the battlefield and instead serve as spokesmen and high-profile recruiters.

Moreover, there are no Marines on this list, which experts say reflects the Corps’ culture of setting a higher bar for combat medals than the other services. None of these or any other factors should detract from the undeniable fact that this list includes some of the most highly decorated combat troops of their generation.

Master-at-arms 2nd Class (SEAL) Michael Monsoor

Medal of Honor: Sept. 29, 2006, Iraq
Silver Star: May 9, 2006, Iraq
Status: Killed in action

On Sept. 29, 2006, Monsoor was deployed with a Navy spec ops task force as part of a sniper team on a rooftop in Ramadi, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq at the time. Insurgents surrounded the sniper team shortly after dawn and attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. Monsoor shoved between two other SEALs when an insurgent grenade landed in front of them. “Instantly and without regard for his own safety, [Monsoor] threw himself onto the grenade to absorb the force of the explosion with his body, saving the lives of his two teammates,” according to his subsequent Medal of Honor citation. He suffered catastrophic wounds and died moments later. The Navy plans to name a destroyer after Monsoor.

Michael Monsoor Navy SEAL

Master-at-arms 2nd Class (SEAL) Michael Monsoor featured on the 10 most highly decorated Americans since 9/11

Army Chief  Warrant Officer 5 David Cooper

Distinguished Service Cross: Nov. 27, 2006, Iraq
Silver Star: May 14, 2006, Iraq
Status: Retired

Cooper was flying an AH-6 Little Bird helicopter Nov. 27, 2006, leading a team of aviators providing support to a ground-based spec ops team as it moved to a staging site across the open desert of central Iraq. When his wingman’s Little Bird crashed, Cooper stayed on station to support the 20 special operators protecting the crash site while several other aircraft returned to base to find a recovery team. About 40 minutes later, enemy fighters appeared on the horizon and attacked the ground forces that had no cover. Cooper flew directly into the enemy fire to divert attention from the ground troops. When he ran out of ammo, he landed near the crash site and the ground troops helped him reload with rounds taken from the other downed helicopter. He did this twice; after his third aerial attack, the enemy fighters gave up and cleared the area.

Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 David Cooper

Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 David Cooper

Navy Lt. Mark L. Donald

Navy Cross: Oct. 25, 2003, Afghanistan
Silver Star: Nov. 10, 2003, Afghanistan
Status: Retired

When Lt. Mark Donald’s convoy came under attack Oct. 23, 2003, he got out of his truck and began returning fire while also pulling a wounded Afghan soldier to safety behind the engine block. Donald, a SEAL, braved a spray of enemy gunfire to get to a wounded Marine trapped behind the steering wheel, pulled him out of the truck and began treating his wounds. Bullets ripped through Donald’s clothing as he alternated between providing medical care and returning fire. After arranging several medical evacuations, he took command of a disorganized Afghan army squad and ordered it to break the ambush. Donald, knowing that several troops were wounded in a nearby position, sprinted 200 meters amid withering heavy machine-gun fire to treat an Afghan soldier and a U.S. Marine. He continued to provide emergency medical treatment to those and several other troops until medical evacuations were completed.

Navy Lt. Mark L. Donald

Navy Lt. Mark L. Donald

Army Sgt. 1st Class Erich Phillips

Distinguished Service Cross: Aug. 22, 2007, Afghanistan
Silver Star: July 13, 2008, Afghanistan
Status: Active duty

Phillips was a 23-year-old mortar platoon sergeant at a small mountainside outpost in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province on Aug. 22, 2007, when an insurgent rocket attack began from all sides just before dawn. The platoon’s Afghan army counterparts fled almost immediately, leaving just a team of two dozen U.S. soldiers. Phillips led the unit’s defense against an insurgent force estimated to be three times their size. The attackers breached parts of the compound, and Phillips risked isolating himself from the rest of the platoon element to help his team hold its perimeter posts as they fought back and waited for air support. At one point, the platoon’s medic suffered a chest wound, and Phillips dragged him to safety. The three-hour battle left half of the platoon wounded before A-10 Warthogs arrived overhead and began strafing runs that ultimately pushed the enemy back.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Erich Phillips

Army Sgt. 1st Class Erich Phillips

Army Master Sgt. Paul D. Fiesel

Silver Star: Nov. 2, 2007, Afghanistan
Silver Star: Sept. 27, 2011, Afghanistan
Status: Retired

Fiesel earned his second Silver Star in September 2011 while on a patrol with his spec ops detachment. A four-man overwatch team from his unit came under fire and was pinned down by several dozen enemy fighters armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Fiesel quickly organized his own four-man team and led them on a three-kilometer assault that distracted the enemy fighters and allowed the pinned-down U.S. soldiers to maneuver into a better position. Fiesel’s counterattack included traversing a 500-meter stretch of flat and open terrain that left him and his teammates exposed. “Without his courageous, self-sacrificing dedication to duty and his intense loyalty to his men, the members of the pinned down element would have undoubtedly been killed,” his citation states.

silver star

Army Cpl. Angelo J. Vaccaro

Silver Star: July 5, 2006, Afghanistan
Silver Star: September 8, 2006, Afghanistan
Status: Killed in action

Vaccaro, a line medic with the 10th Mountain Division, was the first service member to be awarded two Silver Stars since 2001, earning both while on deployment in Afghanistan’s Kunar province while he was treating wounded soldiers under heavy enemy fire. Just a few weeks after the heroic actions that resulted in his second Silver Star, Vaccaro was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle in October 2006.

Army Cpl. Angelo J. Vaccaro

Army Cpl. Angelo J. Vaccaro

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kirk Foster

Silver Star: Oct. 1, 2005, Iraq
Silver Star: Oct. 29, 2005, Iraq
Status: Active duty

Foster was with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Iraq in October 2005 when he earned two Silver Stars in the span of less than one month. While under heavy enemy attack from direct fire and grenades, Foster “led an assault on an insurgent stronghold,” according to the citation for the second medal. “His heroic leadership, courage under fire and aggressive spirit saved lives by eliminating the enemy threat to his fellow Rangers.” Foster remains on active duty at Fort Benning, Ga.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kirk Foster

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kirk Foster (Right)

Air Force Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell

Silver Star: May 8 and 30*, 2007, Afghanistan
Silver Star: July 25, 2007, Afghanistan
Status: Died in accident

Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell earned two Silver Stars while on deployment as a combat controller working on the ground with soldiers and Marines. On May 8, 2007, Harvell helped dozens of troops get out of an ambush zone that his nine-vehicle convoy drove through. During the 10-hour firefight, Harvell repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire while helping direct a medevac helicopter to its landing zone and also help direct close air support from F/A-18 Super Hornets overhead. “Later, in the middle of a devastating ambush, he again exposed himself to heavy enemy fire from as close as five meters and directed F-18 strafing runs within a mere 45 feet of his position to rout enemy insurgents,” his official citation states.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell

Air Force Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell

Air Force Tech Sgt. Ismael Villegas

Silver Star: Sept. 24, 2009, Afghanistan
Silver Star: Feb. 6 and 24*, 2011, Afghanistan
Status: Active duty

Villegas was a joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC, working with an Army Special Forces team in September 2009 when his three-man dismounted patrol was ambushed. Enemy fighters first triggered an improvised explosive device, then unleashed “accurate and intense heavy machine gun fire from nearby high terrain,” according to Villegas’ citation. With his teammates pinned down in the kill zone, Villegas sprinted about 200 meters across an IED minefield to take up a better tactical position. He then returned fire with his personal weapon while calling in close-air support. The 16-hour firefight ended when the U.S. air support helped rout the enemy fighters, saving the lives of Villegas’ teammates.

Air Force Tech Sgt. Ismael Villegas

Air Force Tech Sgt. Ismael Villegas

Army Master Sgt. Ted C. Westmoreland

Silver Star: July 22, 2003, Iraq
Silver Star: December 4 – 11, 2003, unknown location
Status: Retired

Westmoreland was a combat medic with Army Special Forces. He earned his first Silver Star shortly after the invasion of Iraq when his unit mounted a high-risk assault on a building that housed two of the top three most wanted targets in Iraq at the time. Several months later, he earned another Silver Star for a “strategic mission behind enemy lines” where he responded to a “mass casualty incident.” His official citation makes the location of that mission unclear.

silver star

Silver Star medal

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American Heroes

Two Marines in the path of a truck bomb lay down lives to save others

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Nine years ago, two Marines from two different walks of life who had literally just met were told to stand guard in front of their outpost’s entry control point. On Apr. 22, 2008, Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter stood at entry control point at a joint security station in Ramadi along with Iraqi policemen.

Minutes later, they were staring down a big blue truck packed with explosives. With this particular shred of hell bearing down on them, they stood their ground. Heck, they even leaned in.

They immediately recognized the truck as a VBIED [Vehicle-borne improvised explosive device], stood in its path and began shooting. As the Iraqis around them fled, they leaned in, unloading their weapons. The truck stopped just short of the two Marines and detonated, killing them both instantly.

Both Marines were awarded the Navy Cross for their actions, which was captured on a security camera.

This story was told so many times so it becomes a legend. In 2010, just four days following the death of his own son in combat, Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly eulogized two other sons in an unforgettable manner.

From John Kelly’s speech:

Two years ago when I was the Commander of all U.S. and Iraqi forces, in fact, the 22nd of April 2008, two Marine infantry battalions, 1/9 “The Walking Dead,” and 2/8 were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion in the closing days of their deployment going home very soon, the other just starting its seven-month combat tour.

Two Marines, Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 years old respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch together at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines.

The same broken down ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, also my men and our allies in the fight against the terrorists in Ramadi, a city until recently the most dangerous city on earth and owned by Al Qaeda. Yale was a dirt poor mixed-race kid from Virginia with a wife and daughter, and a mother and sister who lived with him and he supported as well. He did this on a yearly salary of less than $23,000. Haerter, on the other hand, was a middle class white kid from Long Island.

They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines they would never have met each other, or understood that multiple America’s exist simultaneously depending on one’s race, education level, economic status, and where you might have been born. But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible of Marine training, and because of this bond they were brothers as close, or closer, than if they were born of the same woman.

The mission orders they received from the sergeant squad leader I am sure went something like: “Okay you two clowns, stand this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.” “You clear?” I am also sure Yale and Haerter then rolled their eyes and said in unison something like: “Yes Sergeant,” with just enough attitude that made the point without saying the words, “No kidding sweetheart, we know what we’re doing.” They then relieved two other Marines on watch and took up their post at the entry control point of Joint Security Station Nasser, in the Sophia section of Ramadi, al Anbar, Iraq.

A few minutes later a large blue truck turned down the alley way—perhaps 60-70 yards in length—and sped its way through the serpentine of concrete jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both catastrophically. Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck’s engine came to rest two hundred yards away knocking most of a house down before it stopped.

Our explosive experts reckoned the blast was made of 2,000 pounds of explosives. Two died, and because these two young infantrymen didn’t have it in their DNA to run from danger, they saved 150 of their Iraqi and American brothers-in-arms.

When I read the situation report about the incident a few hours after it happened I called the regimental commander for details as something about this struck me as different. Marines dying or being seriously wounded is commonplace in combat. We expect Marines regardless of rank or MOS to stand their ground and do their duty, and even die in the process, if that is what the mission takes. But this just seemed different.

The regimental commander had just returned from the site and he agreed, but reported that there were no American witnesses to the event—just Iraqi police. I figured if there was any chance of finding out what actually happened and then to decorate the two Marines to acknowledge their bravery, I’d have to do it as a combat award that requires two eye-witnesses and we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements. If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer.

I traveled to Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to a half-dozen Iraqi police all of whom told the same story. The blue truck turned down into the alley and immediately sped up as it made its way through the serpentine. They all said, “We knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing.” The Iraqi police then related that some of them also fired, and then to a man, ran for safety just prior to the explosion.

All survived. Many were injured … some seriously. One of the Iraqis elaborated and with tears welling up said, “They’d run like any normal man would to save his life.”

What he didn’t know until then, he said, and what he learned that very instant, was that Marines are not normal. Choking past the emotion he said, “Sir, in the name of God no sane man would have stood there and done what they did.”

“No sane man.”

“They saved us all.”

What we didn’t know at the time, and only learned a couple of days later after I wrote a summary and submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras, damaged initially in the blast, recorded some of the suicide attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis had described it. It took exactly six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it detonated.

You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. Putting myself in their heads I supposed it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. Exactly no time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: “ … let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.”

The two Marines had about five seconds left to live. It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time the truck was half-way through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. Here, the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were—some running right past the Marines. They had three seconds left to live.

For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines’ weapons firing non-stop…the truck’s windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore in to the body of the son-of-a-bitch who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers—American and Iraqi—bedded down in the barracks totally unaware of the fact that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. If they had been aware, they would have know they were safe … because two Marines stood between them and a crazed suicide bomber.

The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the instantaneous violence Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could work their weapons. They had only one second left to live.

The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. 

Six seconds.

Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty … into eternity. That is the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight—for you.

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American Heroes

A life and death of distinguished member of Delta Force

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In a thinly populated, economically struggling patch of eastern Oklahoma near the border, Joshua L. Wheeler had a difficult childhood and very few options. The experience from his childhood helped shape him as a man who was comfortable with significant amounts of responsibility, family members said.

“In that area, if you didn’t go to college, you basically had a choice of the oil fields or the military,” said his uncle, Jack Shamblin. “The Army really suited him; he always had such robust energy and he always wanted to help people, and he felt he was doing that.”

The Army offered an escape, but it turned into much more. He made a career in uniform, first as Army Ranger and later as a highly decorated combat veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Army’s elite Delta Force, a secretive counterterrorism force first established in the late 1970s.

Military Carrer

Joshua Wheeler enlisted in 1995, and in 1997 he joined the Army Rangers, a specially trained group within the Army.

From 2004, he was assigned to Army Special Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., which includes Delta Force, the extremely selective unit that carries out some of the military’s riskiest operations. He completed specialized training in several fields, including parachute jumping, mountaineering, leading infantry units, explosives and urban combat.

Death

On October 22, 2015, he became the first U.S. service member to die in combat against the Islamic State after getting hit by small-arms fire during a raid carried out by Kurdish forces on a militant-run prison in Hawijah, Iraq. The mission freed some 70 prisoners who U.S. officials think would have been executed and dumped in a mass grave later that day.

When Kurdish commandos went on a helicopter raid to rescue about 70 hostages who were about to be executed by Islamic State militants, the plan called for the Americans who accompanied them to offer support, not join in the action, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said on Friday. But then the Kurdish attack on the prison where the hostages were held stalled, and Sergeant Wheeler responded.

“He ran to the sound of the guns,” Mr. Carter said. “Obviously, we’re very saddened that he lost his life,” he said, adding, “I’m immensely proud of this young man.”

A former Delta Force officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler in Iraq and had been briefed on the mission said that the Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, tried to blast a hole in the compound’s outer wall, but could not. Sergeant Joshua Wheeler and another American, part of a team of 10 to 20 Delta Force operators who were present, ran up to the wall, breached it with explosives, and were the first ones through the hole.

“When you blow a hole in a compound wall, all the enemy fire gets directed toward that hole, and that is where he was,” said the former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation.

The military does not officially acknowledge the existence of the Delta Force, the Army counterpart to Navy SEAL teams.

The mission itself was a success, and the more than 70 hostages were freed. A few of the Peshmerga fighters were injured, while five ISIL militants were detained during the operation and approximately 20 were killed.

Achievements

Sergeant Wheeler was a veteran of 14 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, with a chest full of medals. His honors included four Bronze Stars with the letter V, awarded for valor in combat; and seven Bronze Stars, awarded for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone.

Burial

Joshua Lloyd Wheeler

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington
Arlington County
Virginia, USA
Plot: Section 60, Grave 10348

 

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