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2 Schofield Soldiers Earn Silver Stars for Heroism

Kunar and Nangarhar provinces are abstract names for most, places that get mentioned in news stories about distant Afghanistan.

For two Schofield Barracks soldiers, it's where a determined and up-close enemy could have killed them, but they were skilled enough, and lucky enough, to give better than they got, battling back and saving fellow soldiers in the process.

Spc. Jeffrey Conn, 25, and Spc. Craig Middleton, 23, were awarded Silver Stars -- the nation's third-highest award for combat valor -- on Monday as more than 1,000 fellow soldiers looked on outside the F-Quad barracks.

Conn, a medic with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry "Wolfhounds," performed yeoman's duty at a remote mountain outpost in Kunar, risking his life repeatedly during a nine-day battle in October, exposing himself to heavy machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades, rifle fire and mortars to treat casualties and defend the outpost against an overwhelming number of enemy fighters, according to officials.

The attack, rare for its size and duration, at one point saw 10 suicide fighters charge the small observation post's perimeter wire with backpacks filled with explosives.

A month later on Nov. 16, Middleton, a truck gunner with A Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, was on a reconnaissance mission in Nangarhar province when rocket-propelled grenades hit a scout truck, then the truck behind his, with a third exploding through the rear window of his vehicle.

"A big puff of smoke and orange and that was it," the Sevierville, Tenn., man recalled of the explosion.

Amid screams from two Air Force airmen in the back who had been hit and a lot of smoke and blood, Middleton had the presence of mind to fight back, firing at least 40 rounds from his Mk-19 grenade launcher and then using his M-4 rifle to target the enemy.

Middleton alternated between returning fire and applying tourniquets to the wounded -- while not revealing that he had received a gunshot wound to his thigh and had been peppered with shrapnel.

Both men were part of a yearlong deployment to eastern Afghanistan by 4,000 soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which returned in March and April after 20 soldiers were killed and 260 were wounded in action. Some 87 soldiers were awarded Purple Hearts for wounds received in battle.

"For those of you who don't know, this brigade spent an entire year fighting an elusive and ruthless enemy in the toughest terrain and weather that any American soldier has ever experienced," said Schofield's commander, Maj. Gen. Kurt Fuller.

Conn received the recognition for his actions at Observation Post Shal during Operation Rugged Sarak to secure a highway in Kunar province.

It was the second Silver Star pinned on a Wolfhound as a result of the battle. Sgt. Michael Moynihan, 22, who manned weapons in exposed areas and at one point was knocked unconscious by a mortar, received the award in March in Afghanistan.

1st Lt. Sean Madinger, a Punahou and University of Hawaii graduate who was the 1st Platoon leader at the observation post, said militants had used Shal Mountain as a base for attacks on Afghan and U.S. soldiers when the 3rd Brigade decided to take it back.

Twenty-five Americans and 10 Afghan soldiers fought back against an attack that started Oct. 11 with 12 heavy machine gun positions opening up on the Americans, Madinger said.

Throughout the battle, several hundred fighters simultaneously attacked all of Bravo Company's positions while maneuvering against 1st Platoon.

The toughest point, said Conn, from Plano, Texas, was when a mortar wounded five Americans and three Afghans. At least five of the soldiers experienced traumatic brain injury, he said.

Both Conn and Middleton were on their first combat deployments. Middleton said he's being medically discharged from the Army.

Asked how he's doing, Middleton said, "Better than some, worse than others."

"It does haunt you," he said of his combat experiences. "I have sleep problems, nightmares. It's true. It's real. But if you talk about it, you'll be OK. I'm still coping with a lot of it."

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