Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Two Marines Awarded the Navy Cross

The Navy Cross is second-highest award for valor in combat action against the enemy, exceeded only by the Medal of Honor.  It has been awarded to 31 Marines and seven sailors during the previous ten years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, ten of them posthumously.  Last Friday, two of them were awarded to Marines in separate ceremonies.

Sergeant Christopher Farias of La Porte, Texas received the Navy Cross for action in the Kajaki District of northeast Helmand Province, Afghanistan on 5 October 2010.  Then-Corporal Farias was serving as assistant squad leader with I Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines during the second day of a three-day patrol when it moved into a compound and began preparing to lay in an early evening ambush.  During that time, an enemy force had been able to creep into the area by way of nearby tree lines.  As Farias’ squad was staging together inside the walled compound, the enemy initiated an attack by firing a 73mm recoilless round into their midst, followed by intense rifle and machine gun fire, and more recoilless rounds.  Several Marines were immediately wounded and incapacitated, including the squad leader.  Farias was blown against a wall, suffering from a severe concussion, a broken clavicle, and several shrapnel wounds to the neck, shoulder and back.  Recovering from the shock of the blast, he immediately sought to give aid to the six wounded Marines (four critical) and helped direct triage efforts to those in the immediate vicinity.  The increasing enemy volume of fire, from three sides, resulted in Farias directing his men to move the wounded into a protected area of the compound.

Due to the intense fire, other Marines of his platoon were initially cut off from Farias’ position, but he gathered together two machine gun teams, a M240B and a M249.  Despite his wounds, he then pulled himself onto the roof of a building which gave him good observation and field of fire from his position into the enemy, who were breaking through into the compound, and had the machine gun teams follow him onto the roof.  The price for this commanding position was that he was more exposed to enemy fire, but nonetheless he continued to direct the fire of the machine guns into the Taliban fighters, and he further exposed himself to engage them with his rifle and underslung M203 grenade launcher.  It was from here that he fired on four or five Taliban attempting to flank his position, firing his last four 40mm grenade rounds.  His citation reads that “his unyielding, aggressive leadership in the face of the enemy’s persistent assault repelled the enemy’s continued attack and continually frustrated their attempts to overrun the platoon’s [patrol base].”

His actions naturally led the enemy to focus their attention and firepower on him and his position atop the roof, which allowed the remainder of the platoon to move seven urgent casualties across an IED-mined field to an emergency helicopter landing zone and permitted their evacuation.  The enemy attack was finally defeated by close air strikes.  (Note: close air support – CAS – missions are typically defined as within 400 meters of our troops; the Marines define it as within 75 meters.)  Despite his wounds, Farias remained at his post through the engagement with the attackers, the evacuation of the wounded, and the airstrikes.  Only then did he and his composite team leave the rooftop.  He then directed a policing of the area for gear and equipment before evacuating the compound and walking, unaided, almost two kilometers to an improvised ground evacuation site.  Once his wounds were evaluated, he was medevacked by helo due to their severity.

In the other ceremony of the day, Sergeant Christopher Wooldridge of Port Angeles, Washington received the Navy Cross for action with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines while in the Musa Qala District of Helmand, on a mounted patrol on 18 June 2010.  When his vehicle came under intense enemy fire from an ambush from nearby structures, he ordered his men out of the vehicle and his four-man fire team did what Marines are trained to do – assault into the ambush.  They maneuvered to flank the 15 Taliban troops and took them under fire in a counter-ambush, killing or wounding eight of them before the rest scattered.

Not wanting to linger, the Marines turned to maneuver out of the kill zone.  Wooldridge detected voices in a compound close by and closed to investigate, to discover and surprise, face to face, two Taliban fighters.  He killed the two of them but exhausted his ammunition in the process.  He dropped to try to quickly reload his M249 when he saw the muzzle of a Taliban machine gun appear around the corner of a wall.  He immediately seized the barrel and pulled the surprised Taliban around the corner, where the two fought in hand-to-hand combat.  The Taliban insurgent realised that he was outmatched by the 6’3”, 220-pound former wrestler and football player, so he grabbed a grenade from his vest and attempted to pull the pin, in order to kill them both.  This allowed Wooldridge to wrest the weapon away from the Taliban fighter, whereupon he was able to beat him to death with several butt strokes to the head.

The actions of these two, as the citations read, were “heroic and unselfish, and are highly worthy of being awarded the Navy Cross.”

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