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Heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan, their stories

- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

HEROES AMONG US: FIRSTHAND ACCOUNTS OF COMBAT FROM AMERICA'S MOST DECORATED WARRIORS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN

By Maj. Chuck Larson (USA)

NAL Columbia, $24.95, 334 pages

AMERICAN HEROES IN THE FIGHT AGAINST RADICAL ISLAM

By Col. Oliver North (USMC-RET)

B&H Books, $22.99, 288 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES C. ROBERTS

Maj. Chuck Larson's book is titled "Heroes Among Us" but "Unknown Heroes Among Us" might be more apt because it is unlikely that one in 100 Americans has heard of any of the highly decorated young men profiled by the author.

Why is this? The American armed forces of today are perhaps the finest ever fielded in the history of our country and examples abound of heroism and sacrifice on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. In "Heroes Among Us," Army Maj. Chuck Larson, himself a decorated Iraq veteran, provides profiles of 29 of his fellow veterans of action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All are recipients of the Medal of Honor (the nation's highest award for valor) the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross or Air Force Cross (the second highest) or the Silver Star (the third highest). Except for Paul Ray Smith and Jason Dunham who received the Medal of Honor posthumously, all the accounts are based on edited interviews with the recipients.

Of the more than 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, only about one in 20,000 has received the highest awards for valor.

"It's hard getting these medals" Maj. Larson notes, adding, "It's even harder to get the recipients to talk about themselves."

The key, as the author discovered, was to get them to talk about their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with whom they had served in the actions described. The resulting accounts make for riveting reading.

Typical is the story of Army Staff Sgt. Eric Stebner. He and his four-man team were ordered on March 4, 2002 to rescue a downed helicopter crew located 12,000 feet up in the mountains of southern Afghanistan. Mistakenly dropped off well below their objective, Sgt. Stebner and his men had to climb 2,000 feet up steep terrain covered in three feet of snow while carrying 80 pounds of equipment. Nearly frozen and coughing blood because of the lack of oxygen.

Ret. Marine Col. Oliver North, the host of Fox News' popular "War Stories" program, has long been a strong advocate for America's active duty personnel. Col. North has made nine trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan, venturing often in harm's way because, as he puts it, "That's where the heroes are."

Over the past five years of visits to Iraq, Col. North has produced some outstanding reportage and analysis on the war as well as numerous accounts of our troops' courage under fire. "American Heroes" provides a chronological account of the war on terrorism beginning with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Col. North and his producer Griff Jenkins were embedded with U.S. and British forces for the initial assault into Iraq and his account of the drive to Baghdad.

Throughout the book, Col. North sketches short profiles of heroes he has encountered along the way. Early in the account is the story of Navy SEAL Stephen Toboz who, on March 4, 2002, participated in a rescue attempt to save fellow SEAL Neal Roberts who had fallen out of a helicopter into the snow drifts of the Hindu Kush in southern Afghanistan. Mr. Toboz and his team came under intense fire from Taliban forces. Out of almost 24 men in the US force, six were killed and 11 were wounded, including Mr. Toboz. After killing three Taliban, Mr. Toboz was hit by a bullet that shattered his right leg.

Despite his serious wounds, serious loss of blood and hypothermia, Mr. Toboz dragged himself over a kilometer across icy terrain. When he was finally rescued, Mr. Toboz was still firing on the enemy. Following numerous surgeries Mr. Toboz's leg was amputated below the knee. Fitted with a prosthesis, he returned to Afghanistan to re-join his unit.

Now retired from the military Mr. Toboz is a civilian instructor in the SEAL program. He was inspired to serve in the military, he says because "my parents taught me patriotism, duty and determination."

Col. North also tells the inspiring story of Army Sgt. First Class Paul Ray Smith, the first man to be awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Iraq.

On April 4, 2003 Sgt. Smith and his unit were constructing a prisoner of war holding area at Baghdad Airport when the unit was attacked by a company-sized group of Iraqis. Sgt. Smith organized a defense of two platoons. As the battle raged, Sgt. Smith engaged the enemy and rescued three injured soldiers while taking hostile fire. Fearing his men would be overrun, Sgt. Smith rushed to man a 50-caliber machine gun. Despite his exposed position, Sgt. Smith stood his ground and poured withering fire on the attacking enemy, killing an estimated 50 of them until he was cut down by a bullet.

Sgt. Smith's actions saved his unit from being wiped out and allowed the evacuation of many wounded personnel. For his selfless heroism President Bush presented Sgt Smith's widow and 11-year-old son with the dead hero's Medal of Honor.

Equally inspiring in his own way is Marine 2nd Lt. Andrew Kinard. On Oct. 29, 2006 Lt. Kinard was leading his seven-man platoon on patrol in the town of Rawah when an IED exploded next to him, knocking him 20 feet away and blowing off both legs.

Lt. Kinard was rushed to an Army trauma hospital where he was given transfusions of 67 pints of blood. Flown to Germany for more advanced treatment. He suffered two incidents of cardiac arrest. Dozens of surgical procedures were done to plus plus the innumerable shrapnel wounds that had lacerated his body.

The young lieutenant was suffering from pneumonia, a blood infection and perforated intestines when Col. North visited him in the hospital. He described the scene: "Without all the cards, posters, banners, Christmas stockings, lights, photos, and flags spread around the room, the space would have looked like a scene from a Hollywood science fiction movie. Monitors, electronic devices, compressors, pumps and assorted tubes, wires and bags of various colored fluids surrounded the bed — all connected to Andrew Kinard. Tiny flecks of shrapnel were still visible in the left side of his face. He had no legs. His abdomen was an open hole. And he was smiling. God is good, he said in greeting.

Over the next 11 months Lt. Kinard became an inspiration to all who came in contact with him. Displaying a saving sense of humor he sports a t-shirt with the words, "Marine for Sale/40 percent off/Some assembly required."

Yet it is his faith that has enabled Andrew Kinard to not only survive, but triumph, over his injuries.

"God is so good," he says. "I truly believe in the power of prayer, I don't know where I'd be without my faith."

James C. Roberts is president of Radio America and the American Veterans Center.