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Gallantry, heroism of Soldiers recognized during Valor Ceremony

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One Soldier was rendered unconscious by a bomb blast, but recovered and repelled an enemy attack.

One Soldier strained both his hamstrings carrying a slain French officer down a mountain. Another Soldier scaled up and down a mountain three times to save his fellow comrade. Yet another Soldier was shot by enemy fire in the arm three times, yet continued to aggressively engage the enemy. And one Soldier ran through a burning building to evacuate its residents.

Four words sum up their actions -- "leave no one behind."

All five men, assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) were honored for their gallantry and heroism in a Valor Ceremony held at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany on Tuesday.

Capt. David Fox, Sgt. 1st Class McKenna "Frank" Miller and Staff Sgt. Matthew Gassman received Silver Stars, the United States' third-highest award for gallantry in combat, for their heroic actions on Dec. 17, 2010, in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, in direct support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Staff Sgt. Jeffery Musgrave was awarded the United States' fourth-highest award for gallantry in combat, the Bronze Star with Valor Device, as well as the Purple Heart Medal for his actions and wounds received from the enemy on May 17, 2010, while deployed to Wardak Province, Afghanistan.

For risking his life to save 35 German citizens from a Böblingen, Germany, apartment fire during the early morning hours on July 3, 2011, Spc. Willie Smith Jr. was awarded the Soldier's Medal, the United States' highest peacetime award for heroism.

Hosting the ceremony, Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, said the men being recognized would probably never tell their story due to their humility.

"These are real live friends, neighbors, teammates, people who we know," Repass said. "They will humbly admit that they had the opportunity to act outside the line of duty, beyond the orders of superiors and perform an act of conspicuous bravery."

At the conclusion of the ceremony, U.S. European Command Commander Adm. James G. Stavridis praised not only the awardees, but the entire Special Operations Forces community at large.

"Special Forces are the best planners we have," Stavridis said. "But then when chaos descends, that's when these extraordinary people stand and deliver. It's really about bringing order to chaos, about saving your comrades and about, above all, standing for something larger than yourself. That is pretty spectacular."

NO MAN LEFT BEHIND -- Dec. 17, 2010

Fox, three French engineers, an interpreter, an Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, commander and a member of his Special Operations Task Unit, or SOTU, were conducting a site assessment for future placement of an ANSF checkpoint when the team started taking enemy contact.

"We just wanted to get out there, take some photos, get some measurements and get out as quickly as possible," said Miller, who was setting up a defensive perimeter while Fox was surveying the site. "We knew we would get into a firefight every time we went out there."

From his position, Fox noticed that his security elements were taking small arms and rocket-propelled grenade attacks from two separate enemy positions.

"Frank was telling me to hurry up there," Fox said, describing how enemy fire began to increase in volume on Miller's position. "I was sensing things were deteriorating."

He moved the survey element to the top of a ridgeline to engage the enemy and suddenly -- darkness enveloped him.

A devastating improvised explosive device detonated near the team leaving Fox unconscious, instantly killing a French captain and critically wounding the ANSF commander. Despite being disoriented when he came to, Fox began to search for survivors and account for members of the element.

"Initially I thought it was a mortar round," Fox said about regaining consciousness. "I was waiting for that second round to hit, but it never came. I was zapped of all my strength at that point."

Still dazed from the blast and enemy rounds impacting within inches of him, Fox began to administer trauma care by placing a tourniquet on the ANSF commander.

From his position on the ground, Miller heard the large explosion atop the ridgeline but could only see a large plume of black smoke billowing up from where Fox and the assessment team were located. At that moment he had broken transmission with Fox and lost radio contact.

"It went from everything's fine to we're going to need to evacuate the hell out of here," Miller said.

Due to the mountainous terrain, it made radio communications more restricted. Not long afterward, only Fox's words, "urgent ... surgical" could be heard being uttered over the radio.

Located at the eastern-most security position, Gassman made several attempts to scale the mountain directly to the blast site. Realizing enemy rounds were impacting on his position and the ascent route was too steep, he moved 100 meters to the west of his position and around the ridgeline to another access route -- but he was still off.

Gassman then climbed several hundred near-vertical feet on the mountain fully exposed to enemy observation. Impacting rounds sparked the rocky surface near him, yet he continued to try to get to Fox. This time he realized he had climbed south of Fox's position.

Once again, Gassman ran down the mountain and moved 200 meters north and started his desperate climb again, still taking enemy fire. After scrambling twice up restrictive terrain and wearing nearly 80 pounds of gear, an exhausted Gassman finally found Fox and the wounded ANSF commander.

After Miller arrived to Fox's location, he noticed Fox was still dazed from the blast but able to move on his own. Miller organized the element to extract the French engineer's body and the wounded ANSF commander.

"At this time I was totally exhausted, I could barely drag the guy, yet alone put him on my shoulder," Fox said. "Frank said, 'hey I got it,' bends down, puts the KIA in a fireman's carry, picks him up and proceeds to move down the mountain."

Miller had just scaled the mountain just prior to arriving on the scene, but he carried the KIA down the mountain to the emergency helicopter landing zone for evacuation.

Soaked in the French engineer's blood, Miller painstakingly made his way down the mountain, all-the-while taking sustained fire from the enemy. Several times he stumbled and fell due to the weight on his back.

Fox, now carrying Miller's M4 carbine weapon, provided suppressive fire to shield Miller as they made their way down the near-vertical mountain. As Fox watched Miller struggle, he thought, "This is serious trying to get down."

As the men approached the dried up wadi at the base of the mountain, Miller fell once more. He was now in agonizing pain due to his hamstrings being severely strained. The team was able to seek cover behind a tree upon crossing the wadi.

Laughing aloud as he recalled the events on the ground, Miller said, "I do remember Captain Fox running across the wadi in the open to go get help and bringing me water."

Gassman made his way down the mountain under a hail of fire with the ANSF commander to the HLZ, but had to abort because of too much enemy fire at that location. The decision was made to establish another landing zone 1,000 meters away.

After loading everyone in a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle, or LMTV, Gassman dismounted and ran in front of the vehicle to suppress enemy fire and led the vehicle to the second helicopter landing zone where the wounded ANSF commander and the fallen French officer were evacuated.

Reflecting on why it was important to bring his mortally wounded French comrade down the mountain, Miller said, "We're never going to leave somebody behind. It's not an option."

IN SPITE OF PAIN -- May 17, 2010

After completing a home search of a suspected improvised explosive device, or IED, facilitator, Musgrave and his SOTU were preparing to head back to camp when they came under enemy fire. Three rounds ripped into his left bicep before he could even react.

"I looked at my arm and didn't see any blood. My adrenaline just started pumping," Musgrave said. "I was more excited about the firefight."

Musgrave informed the team that he was hit, and continued maneuvering to different positions and returned fire on the enemy. After expending his M-4 basic load and ignoring incoming fire, he left his covered position to man a comrade's M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon and continued to engage in the fight.

Despite bleeding profusely, Musgrave exposed himself twice more before finally being treated for his wounds. As he was being treated by the medic, a member of his team yelled for assistance and again Musgrave maneuvered 300 meters into position to engage the enemy, allowing two of his teammates to flank the enemy and kill two fighters.

"It was something out of a movie," Musgrave said. "On top of everything that was happening, it was pouring down raining. Anything and everything possible that could have went wrong -- went wrong that day."

Fighting with only one good arm, Musgrave and his team tried to depart the area, but their vehicle got stuck in the mud -- all while getting peppered by enemy fire. He got out of the vehicle and formed a defensive perimeter until the vehicle was recovered.

"You don't have time to think about what's going on," Musgrave said of his actions. "I may have got shot, but if the guy next to me, who was my medic, gets shot then we'd really be in a bad situation. During that time of mass chaos, someone had to step up to the plate and do what had to be done."

SAVING YOUR FELLOW MAN -- July 3, 2011

Walking home in the early-morning hours after attending a social event, Smith and a friend noticed a building engulfed in flames in Böblingen, Germany. After directing his friend to call the German authorities, Smith next did something that he said was instinctive on his part.

"I ran up and down three or four stories to inform the people of what was going on," Smith said. "I just wanted to ensure I got everyone out of that building."

Going door-to-door, he attempted to alert the sleeping residents of the fire. By the time the fire department and Polizei arrived, most of the residents were evacuated, but the crowd mentioned there was still an elderly couple inside.

Smith ran back inside the building along with two members of the Polizei to retrieve the couple from harm.

"The gentleman did not want to leave his wife because she had problems walking, so he stayed in the building with her," Smith said.

Moving through thick smoke, Smith and the rescue team located the couple, who were disoriented and having trouble getting out of bed. He took control of the handicapped, elderly gentleman and escorted him down the stairs, while the other rescue team members led the elderly woman to safety. Moments later the roof of the building collapsed.

Smith mentioned his motivation for going into the blazing building was that he didn't want to see anyone get hurt.

"It's inside of everyone to want to help other people," Smith said. "When I did it, I didn't give any second thought about it."

Article by Master Sgt. Donald Sparks, SOCEUR