BAGHDAD — A 1st Infantry Division soldier was awarded the Silver Star Medal in a ceremony last week at Forward Operating Base Gabe in Baqouba, Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Raymond Bittinger, an infantryman from the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment who is attached to 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, received the award July 19 from the 1st Infantry Division commander, Maj. Gen. John R.S. Batiste.
Bittinger earned the award, given for gallantry against enemy forces, for his actions during a mission to secure the governor’s mansion April 9 in Baqouba and Behriz.
When Bittinger’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle, along with several other Bradleys, were given the order to break contact with the enemy, Bittinger’s Bradley provided cover while other vehicles moved safely out of the area.
His Bradley was fired upon by three rocket-propelled grenades, one of which directly hit the vehicle and killed its gunner, Spc. Allen Vandayburg.
The multiple blasts also knocked the driver, Spc. Daniel Plata, then a private first class, unconscious and stunned Bittinger, according to a description of the events provided by Bittinger’s unit. Bittinger continued to fight and move out of the area to get Vandayburg medical attention.
“[Vandayburg] fell over, and I realized he was hit,” Bittinger said. “He was bleeding from his side, and I didn’t want to move him because I thought it might be a back injury. I hoped he was just unconscious.”
Bittinger said he learned later from the medical staff at Forward Operating Base Warhorse that Vandayburg had probably died instantly in the explosion.
That evening, Bittinger’s received orders to engage insurgents in the center of Baqouba.
He didn’t hesitate.
“I’m an infantryman,” he said. “I still had a mission to accomplish.”
The soldiers in his unit were hit hard by Vandayburg’s death, though.
“The guys were bent over; they were crying,” Bittinger said. “They were very upset.”
Still, Bittinger called for two volunteers to join him in the Bradley for the next mission.
“We were going back on the attack, and I needed a driver and gunner,” Bittinger said. “More volunteered than I needed to take with me.”
Plata, the driver on the previous mission, was gunner for the next one. Pfc. Joshua Bridges, a private at the time, was the Bradley’s driver.
Bridges was a Bradley driver for eight months last year before returning to a dismounted line unit.
“A few people really wanted to go out,” Bridges said. “I had experience driving and said I wanted to do it.”
Despite being hit by an improvised explosive device en route, the crew killed five insurgents and wounded four. In the earlier mission, Bittinger’s crew killed at least 10 insurgents, according to information provided by the unit.
Bridges said Bittinger was deserving of the award.
“It was great; I think he really deserved it,” Bridges said. “He did a good job out there.”
The Silver Star Medal is the Army’s fourth highest award, surpassed only by the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal. Since the war in Iraq began last March, 124 soldiers had been awarded the Silver Star as of May 31. By comparison, 399 had earned the Bronze Star Medal for valor over the same period.
Vandayburg was awarded the Bronze Star posthumously.
Bridges, Plata and Bittinger remain on the same crew more than three months after the incidents of April 9.
“It really brought us together as a team,” Bridges said.
Bittinger said he was only doing his job — granted, a job that can be tough on most days.
“Basically, I just wanted to stop them. I wasn’t thinking about anything else,” said Bittinger, who was surprised to be awarded the medal. “We’re here trying to keep peace, and you have all these people who suddenly want to kill you. It’s amazing how quickly they can turn on you.”