PORTLAND, Maine — Timothy Gilboe of Westbrook can’t count the number of times he has told the story of how he was awarded the Silver Star.
After a ceremony Friday at the Portland Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, when the Army gave him back the armored plate that saved his life in Afghanistan, he hopes he won’t have to tell it again anytime soon.
“After the medal, that’s when it started,” said Gilboe, a tall 26-year-old who is studying construction at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.
“People would want to hear the story, and they’ll buy me a beer and say ‘Thank you for your service,’ but the conversation stops there.”
It happened three years ago this month. After serving a tour of duty as an Army engineer in Iraq, Gilboe re-enlisted as an infantryman.
His unit was patrolling along a hillside outside a village in the Afghan province of Maidan Wardak when mortars and rocket-propelled grenades streaked toward several military vehicles that accompanied the patrol.
Gilboe and a few other soldiers took cover, searching for the mortar team that fired on them. He saw a few men on a motorcycle moving through the village below. Gilboe, who was carrying an M240 machine gun, opened fire.
The men went down.
“Our snipers moved up and we worked our way down from the hill,” he recalled Thursday.
When he reached the spot where the bodies of the Taliban mortar team should have been, there was only the motorcycle.
Then the team’s snipers radioed that the mortar team had fled into a nearby storefront. Gilboe and Staff Sgt. Matthew Hermanson, the squad leader, regrouped. Hermanson, who was the same age as Gilboe and a close friend, told Gilboe to stay close behind him.
Along with Gilboe’s assistant machine gunner, the team emerged from cover.
“That’s when (Hermanson) got hit,” Gilboe said. “He reached out to me as if to say ‘Come get me.’ ”
A lieutenant rushed to Hermanson’s aid, but he was quickly shot, too.
When Gilboe turned to his assistant machine gunner, he saw that the soldier’s backpack, which held the machine gun ammunition, was on fire. Gilboe set down his gun and was patting the flames out when he saw the soldier freeze, his attention drawn to something. Gilboe, his hands empty, swung around and saw the Taliban fighter who just shot Hermanson about 25 feet away, carrying an AK-47 assault rifle and charging straight at him.
Gilboe then charged the Taliban fighter.
Gilboe had been shot at and been in a vehicle blown up by an improvised explosive device, but never had been in such close contact with the enemy.
“Getting shot, for me, was a long process,” Gilboe said. Time seemed to slow down. “He took five or six steps and I took five or six steps.”
Gilboe grabbed the barrel of the AK-47, and the slug hit him like a gut-punch, he said. Another inch or two, and Gilboe would have been severely wounded like his friend. Instead, the enemy’s round clipped the bottom of the black body-armor plate that covered his chest.
Gilboe slammed the rifle into the man’s face, throwing him to the ground. In a few seconds, the insurgent was dead, shot by the assistant machine gunner.
Not long afterward, Gilboe watched Hermanson’s casket being loaded onto a plane bound for his family in Appleton, Wis. Gilboe gave the armored plate that saved his life back to the Army.
Now, three years after the incident that has heaped so much attention on him, the glamor and pomp that some civilians like to attach to the Silver Star and other medals feel wrong, Gilboe said.
“I don’t view it as an accomplishment,” Gilboe said. “I lost a good friend, we killed two young men. I don’t really see any good in that.”
He does not like to use the word “hero,” and has misgivings about how the public has made patriotism into a ribbon-shaped bumper sticker, or an easy-to-swallow Facebook posting. After 12 years at war, Gilboe wonders if most Americans can find Afghanistan or Iraq on a map.
He balks when people say that he “won” the medal, as if it was a competition.
Sure, Gilboe appreciates the honor, but he’d rather talk about Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrew Corea, who flanked the other Taliban fighter before he could fire on Gilboe and others. He’d rather talk about his friend Hermanson, who insisted on going in first, which probably saved Gilboe’s life.
“That’s why I like having the medals, so I can tell Sgt. Hermanson’s story,” Gilboe said. “His is the only one that matters.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Doug Maddi, who will be presenting the armored plate to Gilboe and who served with him in Afghanistan, travels the country attending similar ceremonies, where he returns lifesaving body armor to the men who were saved by it. He sees the anguish of the recipients.
“It’s not about them,” Maddi said. “Tim will tell you, he’d prefer to have him be a casualty. He’d do anything to have his buddy back with him. And that’s the hard part.”
Although the loss of his friend still hurts, Gilboe sees the benefits of military service. For many low-income high school seniors, the service is the only ladder into the middle class, he said.
After being discharged from the Army, Gilboe joined the National Guard, and is taking full advantage of the G.I. Bill, which is paying his tuition at SMCC. In a year or two, he plans to finish his construction program.
Since he left active duty, Gilboe said, he still thinks about the war sometimes. He questions the Taliban’s designation by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, saying that, to him, it more closely resembles a nationalist movement, albeit one that occasionally commits terrorist acts.
While he’s glad to see the drawdown of troops, Gilboe said he believes some forces should remain to support the progress that American soldiers have made toward bringing democracy to Afghanistan and improving women’s rights there.
But those issues are distant to him now.
Next month, Gilboe will complete his heavy equipment certification and plans to start a paid internship with a construction company.
“Let all these medals and plates collect dust,” he said. “I’ll tell my grandchildren about it – maybe.”