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HEROES 2013

'Time to get out of this situation'

Marine Staff Sgt. Alec Haralovich, left, holds a radio battery and body armor panel struck by enemy gunfire during an Oct. 4, 2011 battle in Afghanistan. Haralovich was knocked down by the shot, but quickly recovered and ultimately fired a rocket at insurgents who had part of his team pinned down with gunfire, effectively ending the engagement. For his actions that day, Haralovich was awarded the Silver Star. Then Cpl. Matt Chen, center, holds the bullet that grazed his thigh during the same battle and ended up in his pant leg, and then-Cpl. Kevin Tucker, right, displays the vest and CamelBak water pouch that were also hit by a bullet during the exchange.

Marine Staff Sgt. Alec Haralovich said it felt like being “hit by a sledgehammer” when enemy gunfire struck him in the side on Oct. 4, 2011, while he led a unit on dismounted patrol in Afghanistan.

“It hit me and I dropped immediately,” he said. “I thought I was seriously hurt. I have this vivid image of staring up at the blue sky and (having) the tops of trees in my peripheral vision.”

A quick hand check found no blood or additional pain in the area. The bullet had been stopped by his body armor.

That’s when Haralovich said his training — and a healthy jolt of adrenaline — kicked in.

“Time to get out of this situation,” he recalled thinking.

He waived off team medic then-Cpl. Matt Chen, who was coming to his aid. Chen’s thigh was grazed by a bullet as he scrambled back to cover.

Haralovich quickly found cover of his own, but part of his unit was still pinned down by machine-gun fire coming from “multiple firing ports … in two major ambush positions.”

The staff sergeant worked his way into an area that allowed him to fire his rocket launcher, taking out one of the enemy positions and sending the insurgents into retreat.

Haralovich said that in Afghanistan, the enemy was notorious for going “toe to toe with us” in exchanges of gunfire, “but once you put high explosives into the mix … they would decide it was time to call it quits.”

For his actions that day in Helmand province’s village of Ghora, as a team leader with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Haralovich received the Silver Star — the third-highest award for combat valor.

“I’ve read these stories my entire career,” he said, referring to accounts of “the total heroes and bad-asses” honored with medals for their battlefield actions.

When it was his turn, Haralovich said, “it was very humbling,” and he accepted the honor on behalf of his team.

“They were amazing — the best Marines I’ve ever worked with, hands down,” he said. “Everyone says that, but it’s true. I was happy I was able to bring them home relatively unscathed.”

After his time in Afghanistan, Haralovich returned to the U.S. as a member of the Marine Corps Reserve and was taking classes in international studies at Indiana University, though he was not sure what his career plans might be.

“One day at a time,” he said earlier this year.

Perhaps as impressive as Haralovich’s actions were his feelings about how routine the danger was that he faced that day in October 2011.

The Alaska native had received a Purple Heart for relatively minor injuries he sustained in an improvised explosive device blast during one of his three tours in Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan. Being confronted by the enemy was not especially worrisome.

“We were on routine patrol, but the area we operated in was highly kinetic,” he said. “We could guarantee we were going to get engaged one way or another.”

As the patrol got underway, the village was empty and enemy spotters were seen.

“We knew we were going to get engaged very, very soon,” he said.

Then came gunfire from what troops call “rabbits — one guy who sprays, then runs off.”

Suspecting the dozen members of his team were being lured into a trap, Haralovich split them into two groups and they advanced separately into the battle they knew was ahead.

When the engagement was over, the enemy retreated with no bodies or blood trails left behind.

Aside from Chen’s thigh injury, the only “casualties” suffered by Haralovich’s team were a CamelBak water carrier that was shot off the back of then-Cpl. Kevin Tucker and a battery in Haralovich’s radio that was struck by the same bullet that was stopped by his body armor.

A photo of holes in both his radio battery and body armor was apparently at the root of a mistake made in the citation that accompanied his Silver Star, which said he was hit by two rounds of enemy gunfire.

Haralovich’s citation went on to say, “His indomitable courage and relentless determination proved critical in the successful defeat of the enemy.”

“I think we did a good job that day,” he said.

rabiroff.jon@stripes.com

Heroes 2013: Ordinary people or something more?

Honored for valor and bravery in battle, those dubbed heroes often deflect praise saying they did only what others, in their boots, would have done.

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