Medal of Honor
The bullets and rockets whizzed by so close they ripped Spc. John Garner’s weapon right out of his hand. So he used his body, jumping on radio man Sgt. Chris Grzecki to shield him as he called for air support.
Pfc. Derek James lay on his stomach, checking map grids while a medic packed the bullet wound in his back and the hole that a rocket-propelled grenade tore through his arm.
Isolated, Pvt. Brian Bradbury fired his heavy machine gun with his one good arm until he used up his ammunition while what was left of his other arm bled out.
Staff Sgt. Patrick Lybert had jumped up one too many times to get a better shot at the encroaching enemy. He was already dead.
It was among this group of 16 outnumbered men on a lonely mountain ridge in Afghanistan’s eastern Nuristan province that Staff Sgt. Jared Monti threw down his own life to save another, dying a hero on a day that saw so many selfless acts under fire.
In September, President Barack Obama recognized Monti, who was posthumously promoted to sergeant first class, with the Medal of Honor in a room filled with the men who survived the 2006 ordeal. Among the honored, Monti stands out as a hero. Among the men on the mountain, they all do.
“This was by far the most amazing group of guys I have ever been in the presence of,” said Grzecki, who retired from the Army this year as a staff sergeant. “I have never seen or heard of more selflessness, heart and will than in the 16 guys that climbed and fought on that mountain. Everyone was strong for everyone else. No one had to be told what to do. Everyone just took on their role and fought as hard as they possibly could.”
Four men died, two by enemy fire and two by stunning accident.
Death would have its way on that mountain. Still, the extraordinary spirit of men soared, plucking courage from tragedy and hope from futile loss.
Marching on empty
The patrol was a nightmare from the start. Sixteen soldiers from the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division spent three days in June on a hellish climb up a steep, unnavigated mountainside into enemy territory near Gowardesh.
The troops were out in support of a larger operation in the valley, 2,600 feet below. But the main effort got delayed, and the soldiers — alone on hostile peaks — soon exhausted their food and water.
They marched on empty, Monti telling jokes to keep up their morale. He said he wanted to be buried like a Viking, pushed off into the water with a flaming arrow that would burn in the sea, recalled Sgt. Joshua Renken.
That was Monti’s way. Friends and his family said Monti, from Raynham, Mass., could command a room and marked his life with generosity. He gave his Christmas vacations to men with families and once even gave his brand new dining room furniture to a soldier in need.
On that mountain, Monti’s strength pushed the men forward.
“Sergeant Monti was trying to keep everyone happy, cracking jokes, giving people a hard time, just to keep the mood up because we had no food, no water,” said Renken. “We were just hurting.”
On June 21, the third day, the men spread out across a narrow ridge as a helicopter dropped supplies. They desperately needed the food and water, but an Army report later acknowledged that helicopter also likely marked them for a lurking enemy.
‘We are all going to die’
It was nearing dusk when the place lit up with enemy fire from trees above the ridge.
It came in a deluge, pinning men to their positions. Some, like James, had nowhere to take cover. An RPG tore at his arm. Then he was shot in the back.
“I remember thinking ... ‘I am going to die,’ ” James said. “We are all going to die.”
Bleeding, he got up and made a run for the ridge line, then crawled to the main position.
“We were taking so much fire we couldn’t make out where the mortars landed. It was coming in so close that ... you could hear it right over your head,” James said.
“They were so close at one point you could hear their voices.”
So close that soldiers threw grenades to keep them at bay.
One by one, men stole their way back to the main position. But an RPG cut Bradbury’s run short. The 22-year-old private from St. Joseph, Mo., fell just over the ridge from his colleagues. They called out, kept him talking, separated from the group by what James called “the death zone.” As Monti called in artillery and airstrikes, Bradbury’s cries grew weaker.
He was slipping away.
“‘That’s my guy. I am going to get him,’” Grzecki recalled Monti saying before he threw Grzecki the radio.
Twice, gunfire pushed Monti back. The third time, with the men laying down cover fire, he went for it. At age 30, Monti fell in a hail of RPGs and bullets just feet from Bradbury.
“With complete disregard for his own safety, SFC Monti moved from behind the cover of rocks into the face of withering enemy fire,” his commendation says. “SFC Monti’s acts of heroism inspired the patrol to fight off the larger enemy force.”
His men remembered his last words: “I’ve made my peace with God. Tell my family that I love them.”
When the air support arrived, the men clung to the rocky mountain. The ground shuddered as monster bombs exploded, rattling teeth and slicing through trees.
As it grew dark, a weakened enemy finally retreated and the men watched with relief as a medical helicopter lowered a stretcher down.
“I remember hearing the flight medic they dropped down say, ‘Hey, don’t worry. I am gonna get you guys out of here,’ ” said Spc. Sean Smith. “That was nice. It made me feel better.”
Staff Sgt. Heathe Craig, 28, a medic with the 159th Air Ambulance Medical Company out of Wiesbaden, Germany, took James up first, returning with extra straps for Bradbury.
They thought it was finally over. Monti had died trying to save him, and Bradbury would live that legacy.
Then came a thump in the dark and slowly, the dawning realization: The hoist on the stretcher had snapped, sending Craig and Bradbury falling to their deaths.
Later, the only thing the men could make sense of were the small acts that brought life into hell that day on the mountain: a commander who refused to watch his young soldier die, wounded men putting the fight and their comrades first. And a sense of strength and determination that would guide them from that day forward.
“I accepted the fact that I was gonna die that day on that mountain,” said Smith, who deployed again to Logar province with Renken and James in 2009. “I do know now it’s made me a better soldier because one of these days, I will be a leader and I will be able to speak from experience and tell my soldiers the bad guys are bad, they will try to kill you.”
Monti was the sixth man to earn the Medal of Honor in the war on terror, and only the second in Afghanistan. All were posthumous.
“The actions we honor today were not a passing moment of courage. They were the culmination of a life of character and commitment,” Obama said at the ceremony. “Compassion. Perseverance. Strength. A love for his fellow soldiers. These are the values that defined Jared Monti’s life, and the values he displayed in the actions we recognize today.”