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Heroic 'Narratives' Barred to Public
Baltimore Sun  |  December 10, 2007
On a clear night last spring in Afghanistan's eastern mountains, a U.S. infantry platoon went looking for an al-Qaida operative named Habib Jan, and they found him. Outside an abandoned village clinging to a rocky hillside, the platoon was ambushed in a rain of deadly rifle and machine gun fire. Twenty-seven Americans and five Afghan Army fighters together fought 90 or 100 of Habib Jan's Islamist extremists.

For 17 hours, the American platoon was pinned down. Bullets snapped and hissed as the enemy slowly closed in. Ammunition ran low. Water ran out. Sniper rounds plucked at the Soldiers' helmets and sleeves and drilled through boots as they shifted and returned fire. Night stretched into day and on into night again and the fighting intensified. From interviews with Soldiers and an official Army account

Three American Soldiers were awarded Silver Stars for valor in that battle. Their actions are detailed in official Army accounts drawn from eyewitness reports, radio transmissions and other corroborating evidence used as a basis for awarding the medals.

These one- or two-page "narratives," as they are called, are the best accounts of American battlefield heroism. Apart from those who wear the Silver Star -- the third-highest decoration for valor -- few people even know the accounts exist.

But the Army won't let you read any Silver Star narratives. Though most are not classified, they are kept filed away from public view, a practice being challenged in Congress.

"Military honors, to me, should be public information," said Rep. John T. Salazar, a Colorado Democrat and sponsor of the legislation.

But to date, Army lawyers and bureaucrats have blocked requests by The Sun and others to open these war stories to the public. They cite, among other reasons, potential threats to Soldiers' privacy and safety.

Army Capt. Sean McQuade calls such arguments "absurd." As a lieutenant, McQuade led the platoon that fought Habib Jan. He and two of his Soldiers were awarded Silver Stars for heroism in that fight. He is proud of their stories and wants them known.

"Their story needs to be told," he said, "but it's not."

Through six years of war, the Army and Marine Corps have awarded the Silver Star to about 350 men and women, including three from Maryland. But the acts of heroism behind those medals remain largely unknown.

The account of the battle against Habib Jan was compiled from interviews with Soldiers who were there, and from narratives made available unofficially by McQuade.

As Habib Jan's men volleyed machine gun fire and rockets down on the platoon, an Afghan soldier under McQuade's command was struck in the thigh. Medic Jose Rivas, a sergeant from New York City, dragged the wounded man inside a low adobe building and began working to save him as enemy sniper rounds ricocheted around the room.

Rivas quickly realized that the man would die without surgery, and McQuade, assessing his various predicaments, agreed. McQuade kept 20 men to hold off al-Qaida and dispatched 12 others to carry and protect the wounded Afghan.

For three hours, Habib Jan's men tried to kill them as the team struggled downhill, dashing from rock to rock and shooting back as best as they could.

At one point Rivas halted to run IVs into the dying man to boost his falling blood pressure. While bullets thudded around them, Rivas sheltered the Afghan soldier with his body, and troops held the IV bags.

Then they picked him up and zigzagged on through the sleet of fire. When another man went down injured, Rivas crawled back to give aid -- as bullets struck the sand, gravel and rock around him.

War calls men and women to daily acts of courage, selflessness and endurance. In Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, some of this effort is recognized as rising to an extraordinary level. The Silver Star -- actually, it's made of gold -- is one such recognition.

Doug Sterner, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and historian, has waged a noisy fight to bring these heroes into the public light.

"The military's always complaining about how nobody writes about their heroes. Well, how the hell are you supposed to write about heroes if the Defense Department doesn't give up the information?" said Sterner.

Salazar's bill in Congress would remedy that by creating a public database of all military valor awards that would include the Silver Star narratives.

McQuade's men were taking fire from a high ridgeline. Staff Sgt. Christian Bryant wormed his way uphill under intense fire, leading a team toward the enemy guns. As the men found positions, he inched from Soldier to Soldier, steadying them with his presence and encouraging them to fire carefully to conserve ammunition.

With the American ammo supply running critically low, a Blackhawk helicopter suddenly thundered up over a ridgeline and through the smoke and storm of bullets, tilted sideways, and dumped crates of bullets and bottled water at the troopers' feet. Then it spiraled on down the mountain, where its crew picked up the wounded Afghan soldier.

Rivas, the medic, watched them go. Then he headed back uphill into the fight.

"As a Soldier in an Army at war and an American citizen, I know we have an obligation to tell these stories," Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, an infantry officer who heads Army public affairs, said in October. "If there is a policy preventing us from doing that, we need to look at it hard to see if it makes sense."

The Army denied a March 2006 Freedom of Information Act request for the narratives, first on the grounds that it couldn't find all of them.

Next, Army lawyers argued that releasing the narratives "could subject the Soldier and family to increased personal risk." But the Army and the Defense Department already publicize the names, photos and hometowns of medal recipients.

The lawyers also argued that disclosure would discourage officers in the future from writing detailed battle accounts.

The Sun appealed the Army's decision to withhold the narratives in December 2006, and is still awaiting a decision.

As dusk fell, fire from the slopes above the American position grew hotter and rounds began striking into corners previously thought safe. Fresh al-Qaida fighters were pouring over the border from Pakistan to join Habib Jan's fighters.

McQuade's men could see the enemy's muzzle flashes as they fired, and they spotted a sniper in a cave across the narrow valley. They brought up a couple of Viper anti-tank missiles and destroyed the position in a ball of fire, bringing cheers.

But the fight wore on. "We're just getting hammered," McQuade radioed. Reinforcements are on their way, he was told, but it would take hours.

Hold on.

After being prodded for more than a year, the Army acknowledged last week that there is no law or regulation that blocks release of the narratives.

The Army had argued that a Defense Department directive specifically prohibited the release. But the Pentagon directive on medals and awards makes no mention of narratives, and the Army's assertion was hotly denied by a Pentagon spokesman, Col. Gary Keck. "No DoD policy prohibits the release of award narratives," he insisted.

Even so, Army lawyers are conferring with the Pentagon's general counsel, seeking a balance between privacy and public disclosure, officers said.

Meanwhile, the narratives remain off-limits to the public.

As McQuade's men fought for their lives, the Army sprang to help. From fire bases down the valley and miles away, 105 mm and 155 mm howitzers and 120 mm mortars opened up, detonating heavy shells on enemy positions identified by McQuade's spotters. Air Force A-10 Warthogs and three Apache helicopter gunships joined the fight, vectored onto their targets by Bryant, working his radio under heavy fire.

"I've got all the assets in our half of the country," crowed McQuade.

A B-1 bomber swooped in, dropping a bomb, as directed, so close that the concussion blew several cheering troopers off their feet.

But it wasn't until well after dark that an AC-130 gunship arrived to pour deadly fire on the enemy. One by one, the enemy guns went quiet.

"And that's pretty much all she wrote," McQuade said. The battle "was a bit of bad decision-making by the enemy."

Rivas, Bryant and McQuade, who brought all his men safely back from the battle, got home to Fort Drum, N.Y., this summer after 16 months in Afghanistan. Each was awarded the Silver Star at a ceremony last month.

The wounded Afghan soldier survived.

At the Pentagon, lawyers are still arguing.

The narratives are still secret.

And Habib Jan?

Directed by McQuade's exhausted but jubilant men that night in Afghanistan, the AC-130 gunship followed a trail down the valley and came upon a group of six men fleeing the battlefield. After ensuring that no friendlies were nearby, the gunship opened up. The next day McQuade and his men had a look at the bodies.

Habib Jan was dead.

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