The annals of U.S. military history are filled with tales of sacrifice and selflessness, that capture American warfighters at their best in the field of battle. But these stories aren't just about heroism and honor — sometime, they're examples of the warfighter at his most irrevocably badass. They make Captain America look like a hobo.
To that end, we salute the U.S. service members of recent history who pulled off some incredible feats on the battlefield. They're a reminder that when it comes to U.S. service members, you need not be a super-soldier to pull of some jaw-dropping acts of superhuman valor amid the chaos of a firefight.
The Army platoon sergeant who single handedly defended an airport from insurgents
Sgt. 1st Class Paul SmithU.S. Army photo
Just two weeks after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, 33-year-old Army combat engineer Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith found himself deployed with Bravo Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division to a highway just outside Baghdad International Airport to secure the area.
But Smith and his platoon immediately encountered a problem: more than 100 Iraqi Republican Guard troops, whose RPG and mortar fire quickly incapacitated the platoon's armored personnel carrier and wounded several soldiers within. When all hell broke loose, that's when Smith sprang into action:
… All that stood between the enemy and the interior of the airport, where a U.S. command center and an aid station had been set up, were Smith and his men. And they were under threat of being overrun. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Smith “moved under withering enemy fire to a man a.50 caliber machine gun” mounted on the damaged personnel carrier. While another soldier tended to the wounded, Smith directed the driver to position the carrier so he could cover both the gate and the tower.
“Not all soldiers would jump on top of a vehicle that has already gotten hit while bloody people are being taken out of it,” one of Smith's soldiers, Spc. Daniel Medrano, told The Christian Science Monitor. “He did it because he knew if he didn't, we would get slaughtered.”
For his heroism, Smith became the first U.S. service member to receive the Medal of Honor as part of the post-9/11 Global War on Terror, if posthumously: He took down 50 enemy soldiers before he himself was shot and killed.
The Green Beret who charged the enemy with a weapon in each hand
Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Richard Harris U.S. Army photo
Dual-wielding automatic rifles is not for the weak at heart, but when you're fighting to bring your commander home, anything's possible.
In September 2011, Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Richard Harris was searching a contested area near Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan, for a high-value target when he and his team were ambushed with t least 25 heavily-armed Taliban insurgents. His Green Beret team leader, Master Sgt. Danial “Slim” Adams, was thrown from his ATV and shot in the thigh, wrist, and neck.
But the the common promise of warfighters is “leave no man behind,” and Harris wasn't going to give up his commander without a fight:
Under heavy fire, and unaware of Adam's condition, Harris charged. With an M4 in one hand an HK 320 grenade launcher in the other, he fought his way to Adams and began throwing hand grenades at the enemy. Harris dragged him to cover, a small rock which happened to move him closer to enemy fighters firing from a nearby ditch. Now with some cover, he attempted to render first aid, but it was too late.
While Harris was making his way to the fallen team leader, his team members maneuvered to a better firing position and made contact with nearby units. They also called in air support.
An F-16 strafed the area, coming within a few meters of Harris' position, but the 500-pound bomb it dropped wasn't enough to break the enemy attack. Harris contacted his team, and made his way to their position.
Despite Harris' incredible efforts, Adams had succumbed to his wounds, but five years later Harris was awarded the Silver Star for his actions that day. His justification for that superhuman feat? “Everything that I've ever learned and trained and had beat into my head was that you never leave a fallen comrade,” he said in 2016. “And that's exactly what Slim was.”
The Army Ranger who took a grenade to the face like it was nothing
Army Staff Sgt. Austin McCallU.S. Army photo
On Jan. 5, 2010, Army Staff Sgt. Austin McCall and his fellow soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment were clearing a compound in eastern Afghanistan when they ran up against a Taliban suicide bomber with two live grenades. That's when things got out of control:
McCall shot and took him down, but not before he was able to launch one of the grenades at the Rangers.
It hit McCall in the neck, but the pin held firm and it didn't explode. Instead it landed by his feet. Instinctively, McCall turned to his team and yelled “grenade!” as the second one, which was lying on the bomber's chest, exploded.
Shrapnel flew in every direction, and one large piece of metal tore through McCall's left cheek and and took two of his teeth as it exited.
In the commotion, a number of other insurgents entered the fray, and a firefight ensued.
Not only did McCall and his men efficiently clear the compound of insurgents, but McCall himself waited a half-hour without medical care or painkillers before a medevac helo arrived. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a valor device for his actions that day; more importantly, he returned to Afghanistan less than a month after the incident.
“By turning my head and yelling 'grenade' to my Rangers, the shrapnel was able to go right through my face,” McCall told the Houston Chronicle the following September. “It may have saved my life.”
The soldier who rained shells on the enemy from a hand-held mortar tube
U.S. Army photo
Pulling off accurate fire from a mortar tube without a tripod is nothing to sneeze at — unless you're Staff Sgt. Christopher Upp.
In July 2017, Upp and his fellow soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment came under fire rom insurgents a vehicle patrol base in Afghanistan, coming under fire while attempting to reach the bases' 120mm mortar system and damaging the mortar bipod.
This meant exactly dick to Upp:
With the bipod damaged, Upp had to use his hands, and later his shoulders when the weapon became too hot, to heft the 110-pound cannon.
According to his Silver Star citation, Upp accurately fired 75 rounds at enemy positions, literally aiming by hand, all while under constant fire. The battle lasted just over an hour and during that time, the enemy launched more than ten 107mm rockets, over a dozen rocket-propelled grenades, and rained down fire from at least two machine gun positions.
According to the citation, Upp ignored his own injuries from insurgent fire — one shrapnel wound in his left forearm would require 17 stitches — and, after lugging that mortar tube around, even helped carry his fallen commander to a medevac, covering his fellow soldiers' escape the entire way.
The Navy SEAL who was shot 27 times and kept on fighting
U.S. Army photo
Navy Chief Petty Officer Douglas “Mike” Day had the closest call of his life on afternoon in April 2007, when he took 11 rounds to his body armor and 16 rounds to his torso, limbs, groin and buttucks during a raid in Iraq. But Day, a consummate professional, didn't back down for an instant, according to his Silver Star citation:
Despite multiple gunshot wounds, he continued to engage the enemy, transitioning to his pistol after the loss of his primary weapon, eliminating three enemy personnel without injury to the women and children in close proximity to the enemy personnel. Additionally, his decisive leadership and mental clarity in the face of his injuries ensured the success of the mission which resulted in the destruction of four enemy personnel and the recovery of sensitive United States military equipment and valuable intelligence concerning enemy activity in the area.
It took two years for Day to recover from his injuries — but when he did, he completed in a 70.3-mile half Ironman race in 2015 in a bid to raise awareness for traumatic brain injury research.'