Colonel's bravery, leadership recognized in Bronze Star ceremony
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Enemy fire intensified as the July day grew hotter in the mud hut village of Shewan, Afghanistan.
Col. Brett G. Sylvia stayed focused, scanning the horizon for Taliban insurgents.
Suddenly, his soldiers saw Sylvia's head snap back and his body fall forward to the ground.
A medic ran over. Soldiers said Sylvia was briefly knocked out.
But the colonel said the bullet had hit his helmet and caused only bleeding from his forehead. He was bandaged and moved to the front of the battalion to order soldiers to return fire and push forward.
"For him to get back up, that redefined the entire mission," said 1st Sgt. Joe Macavinta, who was fighting alongside Sylvia as part of Operation Southern Swarm II in July 2013.
Sylvia, at the time the commander of Fort Bragg's 307th Engineer Battalion, earned a Bronze Star for valor for his actions during the operation. The honor, which he received Friday, is the Army's fourth highest award for acts of heroism.
Five men, including Macavinta, also were honored for their actions on the operation during a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. Macavinta, Pfc. Brendon Bartz, Sgt. Alejandro Tristan, Sgt. Trent Pontes and Sgt. David Chalifoux all received Army Commendation Medals for valor.
Sylvia had been monitoring efforts of Task Force S.A.W. and 400 members of the Afghan Security Forces who were working to clear roads in Shewan on July 4.
Soldiers were jolted when a bomb detonated, destroying the road and knocking the battalion commander and others backward.
Sylvia picked himself up and rallied the forces together to continue the mission.
Afghan forces took cover and returned fire, but were beginning to concede the fight, according to reports.
Sylvia maneuvered to the front to lead. A barrage of automatic gunfire sprayed him and others as they came out from behind cover.
Two Afghan National Army soldiers had been struck by the gunfire and lay out in the open, according to accounts of the fight. Sylvia motioned to direct Afghan forces to recover their fallen soldiers, but none moved.
Sylvia dropped to his knees and crawled to aid the wounded soldiers.
One of the soldiers was shot in the face and died.
Sylvia grabbed the other soldier under his arm and dragged him to safety, where he received care and survived the injury.
By that point, the Afghan troops were shaken up, according to reports.
Sylvia continued to push the troops forward throughout the day. He was shot in the helmet conducting surveillance over a wall.
But when Sylvia kept going, the soldiers followed him.
"I learned a lot just working with him," Tristan said.
Tristan, and the other men working alongside Sylvia, said they had confidence in his leadership. They decided to nominate him for the Bronze Star after witnessing his persistence and courage.
"I'm so grateful," Sylvia said. "I'm here today because of their valor and their perseverance. There has to be some risk involved to accomplish great things. It could have been easy for us to not have done it, but this task force chose to be significant and make a lasting impact, and I believe it was worth it."