CAMP TAJI, Iraq — On the eve before going home, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Task Force handed out a third Silver Star.
Sgt. Benny J. Alicea, 33, of Attleboro, Mass., earned the medal in Fallujah when he saved the lives of six fellow squad members during a November firefight with insurgents — despite suffering shrapnel wounds from two grenades.
“Sgt. Alicea epitomizes what’s great about our Army,” said Lt. Col. Jim Rainey, the 2-7 Cavalry commander. “He’s a young, disciplined warrior who’s willing to give his life in the protection of his comrades.”
The 850-member task force, which is returning to Fort Hood, Texas, garnered dozens of decorations during the past year, the majority surfacing from its participation in the Fallujah and Najaf campaigns. Between those two battles, 2-7 collected 17 Bronze Star Medals for valor and 63 Army Commendation Medals.
Sgt. Mathew Zedwick of Corvallis, Ore., received a Silver Star two weeks ago. Honored posthumously with a Silver Star, Spc. Jose A. Velez, 23, of Lubbock, Texas, was killed by a sniper as he stood over wounded comrades in Fallujah on Nov. 13.
That same day, Alicea — then a specialist serving as a rifleman and grenadier in Company A — and others went door to door, rounding up terrorist suspects, when they were ambushed at a two-story house along the primary north-south road in Fallujah.
Dropping back into the courtyard, with gunfire spraying out of the house and from across the street, he was struck in the hip and buttocks by shrapnel from two grenades that had been rolled through the front door.
Moving away from the courtyard, the squad headed for the street. After continuing to fire on the house, Alicea was the last to emerge.
“That’s when my leg gave out on me, and I just dropped,” said Alicea, who huddled into a position alongside three wounded comrades in the middle of the road as multiple rounds flew all around them.
“I just kept firing my weapon, just shooting, waiting to get hit. I’d pretty much figured at any given point, it was all over. I just kept firing my weapon, but I didn’t think I was going to make it through it.”
When his own ammunition was exhausted, he grabbed magazines from the wounded and managed to protect the position until another Bradley fighting vehicle arrived on the scene. He helped load the most seriously injured soldiers before finally being taken away himself.
Alicea spent five days recovering, and his squad suffered four casualties and the loss of Velez. That made Saturday’s award bittersweet.
“It feels good,” he said, “but like I said, I miss Velez all the time. It’s an honor to receive the award, but when I look at it, I see him, too. It makes me think about what happened that day.
“It’s been a tough year for us. We’ve done things that I don’t think any other unit could do. We’ve pushed it a lot and taken some losses. I’m just happy a lot of us are going home.”