UNSUNG HEROES: The Platoon Sergeant Who Braved Grenades And Gunfire To Rescue His Soldier

Unsung Heroes
Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell, Ky., awards Sgt. 1st Class John I. Smith Jr., a platoon sergeant with 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the Silver Star Medal during a ceremony April 22, 2010.
Original U.S. Army photo by Spc. Luther L. Boothe Jr.

On Aug. 16, 2008, a reconnaissance platoon with the 101st Airborne Division’s 61st Cavalry Regiment was dispatched to aid a besieged Afghan National Police station in Paktia province, Afghanistan.


The soldiers, led by Capt. Kevin Bell, could hear the sound of gunfire as they approached the objective. The enemy was close. So close, in fact, that the station was under threat of being overrun. A firefight was inevitable.

You can plan for a firefight, but when a soldier goes down, plans tend to fall apart. Hard choices must be made, and made fast. And it’s always a gamble: On the battlefield, lives are saved by soldiers risking their own.

That day in August, Sgt. 1st Class John I. Smith, the platoon sergeant, took that gamble — and it paid off.   

“He says he is not a hero, but he is definitely a hero,” Bell later told the Army. “The example he set is what I remember most. … His reaction was do not think about myself, but help save someone in need.”

It began just about as soon as the platoon dismounted their vehicles. As the soldiers moved to assist the wounded Afghans, the enemy opened up with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. The soldiers fought back until the incoming fire stopped.

Smith and his men then shifted their attention back to the Afghan casualties. And then the incoming fire resumed — and with more accuracy.

“As one of the team’s soldiers was inspecting what we thought was a wounded [Afghan National policeman], he was hit with a grenade and small-arms fire,” Bell said.

The lone soldier went down in the middle of a dirt road. About 10 meters away, a pair of insurgents were hunkered down in a ditch. And beyond them, approximately 250 meters away, an enemy machine-gun team was letting loose. It was a death trap.

“I would not stop, no matter what the cost, to get him out of harm’s way,” Smith recalled during an award ceremony two years later. “That’s what soldiers do. The warrior ethos states, ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade.’”  

Smith was wounded himself but refused medical aid. Instead, he rallied two medics and led a charge across open ground.

“I had to get face-to-face with the enemy to get the soldier,” Smith said. “We got into a shooting match.”

The enemy gunfire was accompanied by more grenades, but the three men pressed on. Unable to get a clear shot, Smith answered with two grenades of his own. Those did the trick.  

“I had to silence the enemy in order to evacuate [him],” Smith said.

Smith was awarded the Silver Star for his actions that day. At the award ceremony, Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said, “My son is going into the Army. I would be very, very proud if my son could serve underneath a noncommissioned officer like Sergeant First Class Smith.”

An Austrian Jagdkommando K9 unit conducts training (Austrian Armed Forces photo)

An Austrian soldier was apparently killed by two military working dogs that he was charged with feeding, the Austrian Ministry of Defense announced on Thursday.

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Conflict photographer Lynsey Addario has seen a hell of a lot of combat over the past twenty years. She patrolled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with the Marines, accompanied the Army on night raids in Baghdad, took artillery fire with rebel fighters in Libya, and has taken photos in countless other wars and humanitarian disasters around the world.

Along the way, Addario captured images of plenty of women serving with pride in uniform, not only in the U.S. armed forces, but also on the battlefields of Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and Israel. Her photographs are the subject of a new article in the November 2019 special issue of National Geographic, "Women: A Century of Change," the magazine's first-ever edition written and photographed exclusively by women.

The photos showcase the wide range of goals and ideals for which these women took up arms. Addario's work includes captivating vignettes of a seasoned guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia; a team of Israeli military police patrolling the streets of Jerusalem; and a unit of Kurdish women guarding ISIS refugees in Syria. Some fight to prove themselves, others seek to ignite social change in their home country, and others do it to liberate other women from the grip of ISIS.

Addario visited several active war zones for the piece, but she found herself shaken by something much closer to home: the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Addario discussed her visit to boot camp and her other travels in an interview with Task & Purpose, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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My brother earned the Medal of Honor for saving countless lives — but only after he was left for dead

"As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night."

Opinion

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

Air Force Master Sgt. John "Chappy" Chapman is my brother. As one of an elite group, Air Force Combat Control — the deadliest and most badass band of brothers to walk a battlefield — John gave his life on March 4, 2002 for brothers he never knew.

They were the brave men who comprised a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that had been called in to rescue the SEAL Team 6 team (Mako-30) with whom he had been embedded, which left him behind on Takur Ghar, a desolate mountain in Afghanistan that topped out at over 10,000 feet.

As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night. After many delays, the mission should and could have been pushed one day, but Szymanski ordered the team to proceed as planned, and Britt "Slab" Slabinski, John's team leader, fell into step after another SEAL team refused the mission.

But the "plan" went even more south when they made the rookie move to insert directly atop the mountain — right into the hands of the bad guys they knew were there.

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Photo: ABC News/screenshot

Federal court judge Reggie Walton in Washington D.C. has ruled Hoda Muthana, a young woman who left her family in Hoover, Alabama, to join ISIS, is not a U.S. citizen, her attorneys told AL.com Thursday.

The ruling means the government does not recognize her a citizen of the United States, even though she was born in the U.S.

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Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. -- The Marine Corps could train as many as eight co-ed companies at boot camp each year, and the general overseeing the effort is hitting back against those complaining that the move is lowering training standards.

"Get over it," Maj. Gen. William Mullen, the head of Training and Education Command told Military.com on Thursday. "We're still making Marines like we used to. That has not changed."

Mullen, a career infantry officer who has led troops in combat — including in Fallujah, Iraq — said Marines have likely been complaining about falling standards since 1775.

"I'm assuming that the second Marine walking into Tun Tavern was like 'You know ... our standards have gone down. They're just not the same as it they used to be,'" Mullen said, referring to the service's famous birthplace. "That has always been going on in the history of the Marine Corps."

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