November 11, 2006
USA Today has a wonderful feature on medal winners of the War on Terror. many of them have been honored on this blog, as well.
On Nov. 14, 2004, Army Col. James Coffman Jr. accompanied 85 Iraqi army commandos to relieve a police station that was under attack in Mosul. He and his Iraqi force were ambushed.
“They had baited a trap for us to roll into,” Coffman remembers. As they took defensive positions in a street, waves of insurgents attacked. More than half the Iraqi commandos with Coffman were wounded and 13 were killed before U.S. troops came to rescue them.
“I was ready to rush forward and engage them, hand-to-hand if need be,” says Coffman, 52, who was down to four bullets in his rifle when help arrived. “I was determined that my (severed) head was not going to be on TV.”
Fonseca received a Navy Cross for heroism on March 23, 2003, in the opening days of the war, when a column of Marine tracked vehicles came under intense machine-gun, rocket and mortar fire. Then they were strafed accidentally by a U.S. jet. Through it all, Fonseca was running from one vehicle to the next, treating wounded Marines.
“All this chaos around you, and I told myself real quick, ‘I’m not going to make it out of here,’ ” Fonseca recalls. Seventeen Marines died that day, and Fonseca remembers waiting to be next. “Is it going to be quick? Is it going to be painful? Am I going to feel anything?”
The moment of clarity for Marine Staff Sgt. Anthony Viggiani, 26, came during a frantic search for an enemy machine gun nest while he was exposed to intense fire in Afghanistan on June 3, 2004.
The insurgents firing the machine gun had pinned down five of Viggiani’s Marines â€” his “boys,” as he calls them, though they are just a few years his junior. Two were wounded, and Viggiani plunged down a steep hillside searching for that enemy position. Then he saw something: a piece of clothing draped over an arm that barely jutted from an opening in the rocks.
“I’ll never forget. It was smoky gray with red piping on it.”
Viggiani fired his rifle into the cave and dropped a grenade inside. The blast killed the five insurgents and silenced the machine gun. “I took the heat off my boys,” he says.
In a rare gesture, Marine Cpl. Dominic Esquibel declined the Navy Cross he earned on Nov. 25, 2004, as a scout sniper. On that day, he destroyed two enemy machine gun nests and saved two of five Marines who lay wounded in a Fallujah courtyard. Marine Lt. Col. Curtis Hill says Esquibel turned down the award “for personal reasons.” Hill declined to elaborate.
The medals don’t shield recipients from the lingering emotional effects of combat. Workman, ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), had been transferred to Parris Island, S.C., to be a drill instructor when the demons of that day in 2003 caused him to suffer an emotional “meltdown” in the chow hall.
“I was in a world of (trouble). I was heading down fast,” he says.
His wife, Jessica, found him toying with a rifle in the garage of her parents’ home during a visit there last June. Since then, counseling has eased his stress, she says.
“I’m not going to say I’m out of the ocean yet,” he says. “But at least my head’s above water.”
Jessica Workman says the medal creates its own stress.
“In the long run, I think it caused him a lot more trouble,” she says. “Everyone kind of looks up to him, and it’s hard when he hasn’t even sorted out all his issues yet.”
Axelson had multiple injuries, including a badly bleeding head wound, before he died, says his widow, Cindy Oji Axelson.
The surviving team member “told me about his last moments with my husband,” Axelson says. “He told me that Matt had said to tell me that he loved me. He knew he was dying. I think he looked at the survivor and said ‘Do what you can to make it out,’”
His medal citation says Axelson “advised (his teammate) to escape while he provided cover fire. With total disregard to his own life and thinking only of his teammate’s survival, he continued to attack the enemy, eliminating additional militia fighters, until he was mortally wounded.”
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