When you ask Sgt. 1st Class Sean Bennett about his Silver Star, this is what he will tell you:
Capt. Brian Freeman was a big, good-looking guy from California. He went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and made the Army’s bobsledding team. First Lt. Jake Frist, another West Pointer, was a great, great officer.
Spc. Johnathan B. Chism went by his middle name, Bryan, something Bennett had learned back when he was the young soldier’s drill sergeant in basic training. Pvt. Johnathan Millican — he was the scrappy guy in the unit.
And Pfc. Shawn Falter? "He was me 10 years earlier," Bennett said. "A little smart-ass, a good kid."
Bennett, 33, of Elgin, Okla., enlisted 14 years ago because he was looking for friendship. He wanted to work with people who had the same focus and the same goals. He wanted his work to have a purpose.
"I found one," he said in March, more than a year after he and others from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, lost Frist, Chism, Millican and Falter. Also lost was Freeman, a reservist from the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion out of Whitehall, Ohio.
It was a little before sunset that day, Jan. 20, 2007, and prayers were echoing across Karbala, Iraq. Bennett was one of about three dozen U.S. soldiers who worked and lived at the city’s Provincial Joint Coordination Center, a government repository that is part city hall, part 911 center, part police station.
Bennett and four others were in the communications room that Saturday. Millican was using a Web camera to talk with his wife.
"Out of nowhere, they stormed the place," Bennett remembered.
The attackers, some of whom were dressed in military uniforms, took over Humvees parked at the center, aimed a .50-caliber gun at the buildings and sent "flaming beer cans" through the walls, Bennett said. They cut the electricity and began to attack the buildings on foot.
Bennett and four other soldiers — Staff Sgt. Billy Wallace, Staff Sgt. Jesse Hernandez, Spc. Johnny Washburn and Millican — were caught in the comms room.
Bennett first went for a grenade, but then realized he didn’t have time. Instead, he and Wallace slammed themselves against the opening door, but they were seconds too late.
The attacker managed to wedge a rifle nose through a crack in the door and sprayed the room with bullets. Bennett grabbed the muzzle and tried to fight back.
Then, a concussion grenade bounced in.
A minute later, Millican was dead and three of the four soldiers trapped in the comms room were wounded. They waited for the door to open.
But for some reason, the attack stopped. Nobody looked in to check for survivors. "They would have had us dead," Bennett said.
Bennett used a satellite phone to call for air support. As they waited, Bennett started an intravenous drip on Hernandez and dressed Wallace’s shrapnel wounds. Then somebody noticed a tear in Bennett’s black fleece top. A bullet had taken off a piece of his left bicep and broken his arm.
"I didn’t know it for 20 minutes," he said. "It’s one of those strange things."
Iraqi police eventually found Freeman, Chism, Frist and Falter among a group of abandoned sport utility vehicles on a deserted road, according to a July article in Time magazine.
Some had been pulled from a room right next to the comms room. They had been kidnapped, handcuffed and shot multiple times, Time reported. They were left for dead.
Fourteen months later, Bennett’s arm has full mobility, but the artillery gunnery sergeant has been reclassified since he lost some power in his left side. He’s waiting to hear about his next job.
But he knows what he wants. He wants to work in a Warrior Transition Unit to help with outpatient care for wounded servicemembers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Bennett said a lot of the soldiers assigned to WTUs are like him, combat wounded. "I’ve been through the system myself," he said. "I know what they need."
At Bennett’s Silver Star ceremony, Wallace wrapped him in a bear hug. "He definitely saved lives that day," Wallace said at the ceremony.
When you ask Bennett about his Silver Star, this is what he will tell you: "I lost some awesome guys that day."
Sgt. 1st Class Sean Bennett
Unit: 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division
Medal: Silver Star
Earned: Jan. 20, 2007, Karbala, Iraq