On the night of April 26, 2008, UH-60 Black Hawks delivered U.S. Army Rangers to a grassy field in rural Iraq. As the soldiers took up their positions beneath the ascending helicopters, a heavy barrage of small-arms fire began whipping in through the tall grass. The men of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment had arrived on a mission to find and eliminate an al Qaeda cell. Now they were being ambushed by a group of insurgents less than 50 meters away.
Two of the Rangers went down almost immediately, one with a life-threatening gunshot wound.
“The guy that got hit was a real good friend of mine, and he called out to me,” Spc. Joe Gibson later told the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in a report published by the military blog Blackfive. “Me and another guy moved to him. I had the medical equipment, so I started getting that prepped while other people started taking care of him. We got him ready for [evacuation], patched him up, and started moving him out.”
With the casualty evacuated, Gibson returned to his squad and the Rangers continued their mission. The gunfire had died down.
As he moved through the chest-high grass, Gibson stepped on something that he thought was garbage. After taking a few more steps, he turned to make sure. It wasn’t garbage — at least not in the literal sense. It was an al Qaeda fighter armed with an AK-47. “He didn’t say anything other than giving his war cry,” Gibson recalled. “He had an advantage on me. I didn’t have a chance to get my weapon ready and I knew he was gonna shoot me, so I dived on him.”
The insurgent’s rifle was raised, but Gibson managed to knock the muzzle to the side just as it went off. Unable to raise his own weapon, Gibson tackled the man to the ground and began pounding him with his fists. “[He] ripped off my helmet and all my optics, so I couldn’t see all that well,” Gibson said.
As the two men fought in almost total darkness, Gibson felt the insurgent reaching down for something on his belt. Gibson figured it was a knife, but when the man yelled, “Bomb!” he realized it was the detonator for a suicide vest. While Gibson lunged for the detonator, the insurgent maneuvered around and began choking him. Fearing he was about to pass out, Gibson reared back and delivered one more blow that connected at the temple and knocked the insurgent out.
Gibson leapt back and raised his M4. “I got my weapon into his stomach and fired,” he told the US Army Special Operations Command public affairs office. “He came back to consciousness after that, [but] I knew I got him. I stood up and neutralized him.”
There’s no telling how many Rangers would have lost their lives had he not neutralized the insurgent.
Gibson was awarded the Silver Star for his actions that night. “Rangers are proven over and over again in battle,” said Adm. Eric Olson, then-commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, during the award ceremony. “Rangers are glorified in Hollywood movies, but you aren’t actors. You are real men who make real sacrifices.”