CAMP BLESSING, Afghanistan — Command Sgt. Major Bradley Meyers doesn’t seem surprised by his battalion’s performance in Kunar Province over the last 14 months.

"I think that soldiers will meet expectations," the top enlisted soldier in the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment said. "If you train them properly, they’ll do just fine."

"Just fine," in this case, might be an understatement.

Soldiers from "The Rock" have been awarded six Silver Stars. Forty-eight have earned Bronze Stars with valor. More than 140 Army Commendation Medals with valor have been approved. Ninety-eight Purple Hearts have been awarded. More than 150 other awards for valor have been submitted for approval — including two for the Medal of Honor, three of for the Distinguished Service Cross and three more for Silver Stars.

The numbers are a testament to the fierce fighting the battalion has seen in Afghanistan, where insurgent attacks have become both more numerous and more brazen over the past year.

The battalion has been involved in about 950 engagements with the enemy during its stint in Afghanistan. Fifteen soldiers from the unit and two Marines working in the province have died during the rotation. About two dozen members of the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and Afghan Border Police have also been killed in the line of duty.

Meyers, who joined the battalion during its last tour in Afghanistan, said 2-503 has aggressively interacted with the local population during both of its stints in country.

"Get out in the battle space, hook up with the local population and maintain relations with the locals," he said. "When you do that, you’re going to end up running into the enemy."

"We’re both fighting for the human terrain," Lt. Col. Bill Ostlund, the battalion commander, said. "We go about it in different ways and for much different reasons. But we and the enemy both need the support of the local population."

The unit operates in the low hills and mountains near this outpost in the Pech River Valley in eastern Afghanistan. The rugged border with Pakistan has long been a hideout and transit route for Taliban and other fighters in Afghanistan.

And while the fight has intensified in southern Afghanistan, the combat has been steady and thick here.

Staff Sgt. Brandon Thomas, a member of Company A, has received three Purple Hearts during the rotation. He’s been wounded in the shin, head and inner thigh. He received the Army Commendation Medal with valor recently, but said he wasn’t any different from any other soldier in the battalion.

"In my opinion, a valor award is just an act of stupidity viewed by others as heroism," he said with a half-smile. "I guess I never learned to find cover in basic training."

A group of soldiers standing around him when he said that all laughed and shook their heads. Several of them had also earned medals with valor during the tour.

"Unfortunately, we don’t get the respect and attention that soldiers fighting in Iraq do," Thomas said, turning more serious. "But we’ve been fighting every day."

"We have a pretty humble group of guys," Ostlund said. "They don’t talk about themselves much. Some of them have seen as much combat as anyone in the Army."

Silver Stars awarded to six of unit’s soldiers

Six soldiers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment have received Silver Stars during the unit’s tour in Afghanistan. A brief look at their actions, according to the narratives submitted for the awards:

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Smith and Sgt. Mattew D. Coulter earned their medals on July 5, 2007, during an air assault by soldiers from Company A into the village of Tsangar.

Smith, acting as a platoon sergeant for the mission, organized the defense of his unit and an Afghan National Army contingent that came under attack away from the main company element. After evacuating wounded soldiers, Smith’s squad came under attack again. He directed the perimeter defense "without regard to the hail of enemy fire and RPG strikes only feet from his position."

Coulter called in strikes by French Mirage fighter jets in the initial contact and later directed artillery strikes to suppress enemy fire and "exposed himself to intense enemy fire in order to maintain observation of direct fire and ensure his fellow Paratroopers received the most accurate and timely fires."

First Lt. Matthew Ferrara and Spc. Jason Baldwin of Company C were honored for their efforts during an attack by insurgents on Aug. 22 on the Ranch House outpost. A numerically superior enemy force almost overran the compound before the attackers were repelled.

Ferrara maintained communications with his headquarters even after an rocket-propelled grenade took out his antenna. He then directed A-10 fire against posts on base that enemy forces had overrun and directed an offensive against insurgents once reinforcements arrived.

Baldwin protected Ferrara and the command center by firing his 60 mm mortar at the advancing enemy and tossing hand grenades at enemy forces that had advanced to within 10 meters of his position. "He acted without regard for his own life, but with incredible courage and quick thinking that destroyed a quickly advancing enemy force…," according to the narrative.

Ferrara was later killed in an ambush.

First Lt. Gregory Ambrosia, executive officer of Company A, led a platoon-size element during a night assault into the upper Watapur Valley on Sept. 25. The platoon’s position was attacked in the morning and Ambrosia lobbed several hand grenades at enemy positions before ordering five smoke grenades to mark U.S. positions. He then directed repeated artillery fire and Apache helicopter attacks "while receiving intense enemy fire directed at his command post."

Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo’s platoon from Company B was providing support for other elements when it was ambushed on Oct. 25. Two of his soldiers were immediately hit. Gallardo led his team to the wounded soldiers and was struck in the helmet by an AK-47 round.

He directed suppressing fire and continued to move toward the enemy and his fallen soldiers, tossing hand grenades.

He then treated one wounded soldier while two other soldiers fought off insurgents trying to carry away another wounded soldier. Gallardo then treated that soldier and coordinated the platoon’s defense and evacuation of five wounded soldiers.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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