IN THE MILITARY
COURTESY 100TH BATTALION
100th Battalion soldiers regroup after an ambush in Al Dubiya, Iraq, on Aug. 17: Sgt. Lafaele Faatamali, front, 1st Lt. Norman Smithers and Iraqi Army Capt. Raad, far right.
'Go For Broke' unit wins 10 medals for bravery
The soldiers, six from Hawaii, survived a three-hour ambush
FOR DISPLAYING BRAVERY under fire during an August ambush, 10 members of the "Go For Broke" 100th Battalion, six of them from Hawaii, will receive the Iraq-deployed unit's first Medals of Valor.
Members of the 100th Battalion will receive the Medal of Valor:
» Sgt. 1st Class Alfred Tachera
» Sgt. Orlando Ulep
» Spc. Michael Correa
» Sgt. Lafaele Faatamalii
» Spc. Harry Mahoe
» Spc. James Inabnitt
The medals, which were to be awarded today in Iraq, are for valor displayed by members of Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon, which survived a harrowing early-morning, three-hour ambush in which one Iraqi Army soldier was killed and two others were wounded.
Army officials said despite the intensity of the battle, none of the unit's citizen soldiers were killed or wounded.
The ceremony awarding the Army Commendation medals with valor devices will be held at Logistic Support Area Anaconda, 50 miles north of Balad. The 10 soldiers are normally members of Charlie Company, 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, but for the Aug. 17-18 mission they were attached to Bravo Company. Six of them are from the islands. They are:
» Sgt. 1st Class Alfred Tachera, 25, Humvee driver, graduated from Pearl City High School in 1998
» Sgt. Orlando Ulep, 33, team leader, graduated from Farrington High School in 1991
» Spc. Michael Correa, 24, Humvee driver, graduated from St. Louis School in 1999
» Sgt. Lafaele Faatamalii, 22, security detachment team leader, lives in Manoa
» Spc. Harry Mahoe, 37, Humvee machine gunner, graduated from Waianae High School in 1987
» Spc. James Inabnitt, Humvee machine gunner
Also honored were: Spc. Cameron Ortega, a security detachment member; Spc. Christopher Panzier, Humvee machine gunner; Spc. Dustin Mendoza, a medic; and Spc. Daniel Weinland, Humvee driver.
Lt. Col. Colbert Lo, commander of the 100th Battalion, said by telephone from Iraq last night that the medals are the first awarded to his soldiers for valor in Iraq.
"It was hard just to cite just one individual who was there," Lo said when asked why one soldier wasn't singled out for a higher award, such as the Bronze Star or Silver Star medals. "It was a unit effort."
Of the nearly 800 awards and citations given to the battalion since it was mobilized in August 2004, these were the first for heroism under fire. To date, at least 46 Purple Heart medals have been awarded.
First Lt. Normandy Smithers, platoon leader of Charlie Company, which was assigned to Bravo Company for the mission, said the night ambush came at the end of a two-day operation with the Iraqi Army called "Operation Iron Fist" in the city of Al Duluiya, nicknamed RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) alley -- an area known to be a hotbed for insurgent activity.
Smithers' platoon was to provide security for soldiers of the Iraqi army.
What was supposed to be a routine night patrol ended with a major firefight that had to be reinforced by aerial fireworks from Kiowa helicopter "little bird" gunships.
A platoon of soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry, using two Bradley Fighting Vehicles also had to be called in for help. At one point, Army officials said, one of the Bradleys ran out of ammunition.
THE ARMY SAID the fight was reminiscent of the intense street fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993 that Army Rangers ran into and which was the subject of the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
Smithers, in his after-action report, said he was warned "that units moving through that area normally receive small-arms fire, RPG fire and get grenades thrown at them, and that several units have been overrun in that area with full-scale ambushes."
Smithers, who graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1999, said the first day of the operation "went rather smooth," with the Iraqi army capturing two insurgents.
At 2:35 a.m. on Aug. 17, the soldiers came under harassing fire as the unit tried to move through the narrow road lined with multi-story buildings, according to the Army.
Smithers, 29, said he remembers seeing streaks of tracer bullets going through his Humvee from one of two insurgent machine gun positions. During that encounter, an Iraqi lieutenant was killed, he said. The soldiers cleared the area and continued to move to the target homes.
The Army citation said that Correa, whose father served as head of the Hawaii Army and Air National Guard under Gov. Ben Cayetano, and the nine other soldiers "willingly risked" their lives for the safety of their fellow soldiers.
The soldiers exposed themselves "to enemy gunfire by stepping out of their vehicle during movement halts" so that they could assist the patrol laying suppressive fires and ensure that no enemy approached or fired upon the patrol's Humvees from their blindside, according to the Army.
Mahoe, Inabnitt and Panzier remained at their post as machine gunners on their Humvees. The gunners returned fire, preventing the insurgents from regrouping and returning lethal fire.
About a mile into the city, the convoy was hit by another ambush.
"We were stuck on a very narrow street, and the lighting of the surrounding buildings and street lights silhouetted us and made us easy targets for the enemy," Smithers said.
The street lights were so strong that they degraded the use of the soldiers' night-vision goggles, and the patrol could identify the insurgents only by muzzle flashes. Smithers ordered his soldiers to knock out the lights.
WHEN SMITHERS LEARNED that the convoy had been stopped while the Iraqi Army soldiers examined what was a suspected homemade bomb, he said he realized that "this was carefully planned and synchronized ambush." The "bomb" had been planted to trap the convoy.
"The Iraqi Army was caught in the kill zone of the ambush, hiding behind whatever cover they could find," he said. "I remember watching as one of the Iraqi soldiers was firing his vehicle-mounted machine gun at the enemy, when he suddenly jumped out of his vehicle and abandoned his weapon and vehicle for cover because he received a hail of machine gun fire."
During that ambush, the Army citation said, "despite the large volume of fire, Faatamalii and Ortega displayed extreme bravery by escorting the company commander to the front of the halted element so that coordination could be made to get the Iraqi element moving again."
Weinland "displayed extreme bravery by dismounting his vehicle and remaining close enough to the vehicle to where he could assist with security and providing suppressive fires while still maintaining the capability to move the vehicle rapidly out of the area if need be."
Inabitt, Mahoe and Panzier were cited for their roles in suppressing the enemy. Ulep was responsible for maintaining his patrol's defensive perimeter during the firefight.
Lo said the battle was "a real validation exercise for the Iraqi Army. They are meeting the fight."