‘Everybody behind me was dead or injured’
1st Sgt. Michael Grinston, Bronze Stars with 'V'
By STEVE LIEWER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2005
First Sgt. Michael Grinston stepped around a corner, onto the narrow Bayji thoroughfare his men called “Market Street” because of the dense row of shops that hugged its curbs.
He trudged along, fourth in the line of soldiers that had snaked through alleys from the Iraqi police station, headed for the mayor’s office two blocks ahead.
As they talked with the police chief around noon on this eerily quiet Good Friday, April 9, 2004, an Iraqi man rushed in, warning that 20 insurgents were about to attack the mayor’s office.
Later, Grinston, then 36, of the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, would learn to be wary of such claims — to respond at full strength, with weapons ready, behind as much armor as he could muster. They might be marching right into an ambush.
But with only a month in Iraq under their ammo belts, Grinston’s artillerymen-turned-grunts had a lot of learning ahead of them.
Suddenly, from a rooftop a block ahead, he heard the whoosh of a rocket-propelled grenade headed his way.
“It probably went 4 or 5 inches over my shoulder,” he recalled. “I didn’t have a scratch. But I was the only one [standing] in the alleyway, because everybody behind me was dead or injured.”
The RPG hit the three soldiers behind him before exploding against a wall in a shower of metal. Staff Sgts. Toby Mallett, 26, and Raymond Jones, 31, were killed instantly. Spc. Peter Enos, 24, a medic, would die of his injuries soon after. Two others suffered shrapnel wounds.
A hail of small-arms fire filled the alley as he stood, alone and exposed, in the street. He tried to fire his M-16, but it jammed.
Grinston raced back and pulled a yellow smoke grenade off of Mallett’s body and set it off, a prearranged SOS to the rest of his platoon. In a matter of minutes, he had rallied the rest of his team, ordered suppressive fire against the rooftop sniper’s nest, and dragged the casualties around the corner to relative safety.
Shortly his platoon would speed to the rescue in Humvees, loading up the dead, the wounded and the survivors and rushing back to their camp, Forward Operating Base Summerall, just west of the city.
“It was probably only 10 or 15 minutes,” Grinston said. “But it seemed like a lifetime.”
But Grinston’s day was far from over. Back at Summerall, he organized three platoons and some tanks, then headed back downtown for a counterattack.
During a six-hour firefight, he earned the awe of his men by racing from vehicle to vehicle to instruct his soldiers after their radios failed — again. Once he braved a barrage of RPGs to order a tank forward.
Grinston’s men swept the buildings along Market Street and cleared them of insurgents.
“I wish the guys wouldn’t have died,” he said. “But it taught us. We had to learn it.”
Grinston’s efforts earned him the Bronze Star with “V,” the first of two he earned during his yearlong Iraq tour. (He was awarded the second after another patrol was ambushed on Market Street on July 2. He rallied his troops and organized a counterattack that killed 10 enemies and wounded 10 more, with no friendly casualties.)
The attack solidified a reputation Grinston earned almost as soon as he arrived in Iraq as a magnet for bombs and bullets. His driver, Sgt. Stephen Wagasky, 21, of Houston, said their Humvee was hit by roadside bombs at least five times, and once it hit a land mine. They came under fire from small arms and grenades more times than he can count.
“Every time we went out, something would happen,” Wagasky said. “There were at least 10 times I thought we were going to die.”
Growing up in Jasper, Ala., Grinston planned to be an architect, not a soldier. But he ran out of money during his studies at Mississippi State, and jumped when a recruiter dangled college cash in front of him.
Long experience as artillerymen, who typically work behind the lines, made the fearlessness of Grinston and his men all the more remarkable. But he rejects the idea he’s done anything special. He was just doing his job, taking care of his soldiers.
Although he’s proud to have earned them, his Bronze Stars don’t give him much pleasure.
“A lot of bad things happened (for me) to get those awards,” Grinston said. “People are dead; people are missing limbs. It’s something I don’t want to think about.”