‘The camaraderie … you can’t duplicate that’
Bronze Star with "V"
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 6, 2016
Oct. 12, 2006 Mosul, Iraq
The story about the day in Iraq he earned the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor is not among Emmett Cullen’s usual repertoire for his Buena High School social studies students. Not because it’s too terrible, but because it’s not terrible enough. “It doesn’t have a good moral for the kids,” Cullen said.
“They all want to know, have you ever killed anyone?” he said of his Ventura County, Calif., students. “I tell them yes, but the ones you kill aren’t always the ones you want to kill.
“They don’t know the realities of harming someone, of seeing your friend killed or taking someone’s child away from them. That’s the rough part.”
Cullen, 34 and a teacher for five years, freely discusses the rough part of his two Iraq deployments — the accidental killing of civilians, ambiguous shootings, friends’ combat deaths, being pretty sure you’ll die, too. He also gives voice to the absurdities of war, the complexity, the lies it engenders and, conversely, its glories.
“The camaraderie, sharing hardships … you can’t duplicate that. I had such love for all those guys,” he said. “There was one time I went home on leave and missed a firefight, and I felt like I’d missed the World Series.”
On April 7, Cullen was awarded a Bronze Star with “V” for his actions on Oct. 12, 2006, when he was an Army sergeant with the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Lewis, Wash., on his second Iraq deployment.
It was about 5:30 p.m. when his Stryker platoon came under attack just as they left their base in Mosul. The fire directed at Cullen and six other soldiers was coming from all directions, from more than 25 insurgents. One of the vehicles maneuvering on a raised dirt trail got stuck and was about to roll into the canal below. Cullen hit the ground, grabbed a heavy tow cable and helped hook the tottering Stryker to another in less than two minutes as rounds hit the dirt all around him.
“When you’re getting shot at, there’s no dallying,” he said.
He saved the lives of the men in the Stryker, his medal citation says, rallied the other soldiers and managed to take out a number of insurgents.
The audacious attack, designed to overrun the base by first firing mortars and setting off explosions, then breaching the gate to kidnap troops, lasted nearly an hour. Cullen’s platoon started to clear the battle area and encountered an Iraqi man behind a wall in a partially constructed building.
“The dude puts his hand up to grab for my squad leader’s rifle,” Cullen said. “You don’t want to shoot a guy so close to your buddy.”
Cullen “engaged the Iraqi male in hand to hand combat and incapacitated him,” according to his citation.
“We beat him pretty severely,” Cullen said. “My first sergeant gave me a hard time; I was reprimanded for not killing him. Turned out he was the old barber on (Forward Operating Base) Patriot. He probably got intel on us. There were a lot of things like that,” where someone working for the U.S. would turn up later as an insurgent.
Cullen spent more than five years in the Army. He spent 27 months in northern Iraq, had four close friends killed in combat and had his tour of duty extended for six months before the Army let him go. But he says he tells his students that if he had to do it over again, he would. “I’d say my service changed me for the better,” he said. “It helped me grow up.”
Cullen tells his students about the time his platoon shot up a car that they believed was carrying a bomb. That was just after they’d been ambushed as they stopped to investigate bound, blindfolded corpses of Iraqi soldiers and police they saw by the road. “All of a sudden, a car turns the corner, with its trunk open, carrying a big water barrel,” he said.
The American troops ordered the car to stop, and as sometimes happened, the terrified driver instead sped up. “He drove right into the machine guns,” Cullen said.
The car stopped and a wounded woman staggered toward the soldiers, carrying her daughter, who’d been shot in the heart. “She starts walking toward us through the firefight with her limp daughter in her arms,” Cullen said.
A medic refused to leave the protection of the Stryker to provide first-aid, Cullen said; his sergeant said he’d kill him if he didn’t. A little brother “begged us in Arabic to save her life,” Cullen said. “It was totally heart-wrenching. Then we just load up and go to the next mission.”
He also tells a difficult story about shooting a man they saw on a roof, most likely a spotter calling in attacks, but possibly just a man, talking.
“We watched him die with only a phone in his hand,” Cullen said. “And then we watched this little girl about 4 years old come and find him, and then look out into the distance toward us, this whole surreal moment. I was wondering if I went to that house, what would the family have to say? When I die, am I going to have this conversation with St. Peter?”
Cullen was put in for his medal along with several others in the platoon for that day in October. “My battalion lost the paperwork,” he said. “It just never got issued.”
He knows that “the guys who earn medals in combat aren’t necessarily the ones who get them,” as he put it. But that didn’t mean he didn’t want his medal. “I definitely want my son to know I earned that,” said Cullen, married now and the father of two. “It’s a big deal, a Bronze Star with a V.”
Submitting all the paperwork on his own, getting all the signatures, took years of dedication, and the help of Congresswoman Julia Brownley, D-Calif.
Brownley presented Cullen with his medal and read his citation aloud on April 7 at an outdoor assembly at the high school, complete with marching band.
“Sergeant Cullen is a true American hero for his distinguished service to our nation in battle and for continuing that service to his community as a high school teacher in Ventura County,” Brownley said.