Sgt. 1st Class Jack White, an Airborne School instructor, received the Army’s second-highest military decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross, Sept. 7.
In a ceremony on the hallowed ground of the 173rd Airborne Memorial at the National Infantry Museum, White was surrounded by his family, Soldiers he served with in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the Fort Benning community.
The award was for his actions June 29, 2008, in Khost Province, Afghanistan, while serving as a squad leader with the Vicenza, Italy-based A Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment.
That night, White and 18 other Soldiers on a tiny observation post near the Pakistan border turned back an enemy force of 105 Taliban fighters who attacked from a ridge with small-arms fire, RPK machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
“He brought them all back unscathed,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Rick Weik, who was the battalion’s command sergeant major and now fills that role at the 198th Infantry Brigade. “Very easily this could’ve turned bad. If it wasn’t for his leadership, it would’ve.”
In the past decade, more than 1.5 million troops have deployed in the war on terrorism. The 173rd Airborne Brigade accounted for four Distinguished Service Cross awards during OEF VIII.
“Heroic actions can serve as lessons learned,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning commanding general. “We talk an awful lot about inspired leadership here. The Soldier we honor today is the epitome of inspired leadership.”
Col. Michael Fenzel, then a lieutenant colonel, led White’s battalion in Afghanistan. He’s now commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, at Fort Bliss, Texas.
“Heroes are made long before the events that thrust them into a position to have to act,” Fenzel told the audience. “Jack White became a hero to those that served with him long before the evening of June 29 on Observation Point East.”
The observation point was a 90-minute climb from Combat Outpost Spera, which sat 1,000 feet below. It’s just 25 meters from Pakistan.
On the morning of June 29, the Taliban fighters began a 10-hour crawl up the side of the mountain toward White’s position at the top. As the attack commenced, White was awoken by an RPG that landed less than 20 meters away. He immediately low-crawled out of the sleeping area to lead the observation point’s defense.
White spoke of the unity and strength of the small tactical unit and squad, and of the human dimension of combat.
“You don’t really think, you just think about what you have to do at the time,” said White, 30, who was a staff sergeant when the incident occurred. “It ain’t like the movies; it ain’t fun. It’s the last place you want to be, honestly. But your training takes over, and you start thinking about the guy to the left and right of you, and make sure everybody gets out of there safe.
“If it weren’t for my guys that were up there … I wouldn’t be speaking to you today.”
Maneuvering through heavy enemy fire, White engaged and quickly adjusted his men to repel the attacking force, according to his citation. With no regard for his own safety, he ordered multiple “danger-close” fire missions, called in airstrikes, and directed lethal mortar and artillery launches.
“There was no way to get to them quickly, (and) over 100 Taliban assaulted them with the intent of overrunning them,” Command Sgt. Maj. Weik said. “But when I heard his voice on the radio, I knew everything was going to be OK … and he brought all those boys off that mountain.”
The fight lasted more than an hour, but the enemy finally broke contact and retreated.
“These Taliban and foreign fighters came in waves and the attacks on the main combat outpost below them emanated from six other directions,” Col. Fenzel said. “The other attacks were designed to isolate OP East so it could be destroyed, but the enemy hadn’t taken into account the expertise, the cool and violent response under the direction of one man … Jack’s own personal actions, bravery and leadership are the reason why 18 other American Soldiers are alive today.”
White has been on four deployments — three to Afghanistan and one to Iraq. The Distinguished Service Cross wouldn’t be possible without the actions of his comrades, he said.
“All my guys who were up on the OP with me, I wish they were here today,” he said. “It’s mainly for them. That’s how I see this award, not for me, but for everybody.”
His unit also earned seven Army Commendation Medals and a Bronze Star, all with “V” devices for valor.
The Distinguished Service Cross has been awarded to more than 13,000 U.S. servicemembers since its inception in January 1918. Since the global war on terror began, it’s gone to 15 Soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom and six from Operation Enduring Freedom.