- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sgt. 1st Class William Tomlin III joined the Army after graduating from college in 1998. He sought a little bit of fun and adventure, he said in an interview. He has found it during his 11 years in the military. He has been on four tours of duty: twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.

Four months into his most recent tour, in April 2007, Sgt. Tomlin experienced his toughest battle in the rugged mountains of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Taliban forces based around the town of Sangin had escalated their attacks on two British forward operating bases. In response, allied forces launched Operation Furious Pursuit, in which the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division was called upon to restore security.

On April 9, 2007, Sgt. Tomlin was leading a scout platoon of 45 men; he was charged with a reconnaissance mission in and around the village of Chakak, north of Sangin. His unit had been in combat in the days preceding this mission. “We had started going around to the houses closest to us to clear them,” Sgt. Tomlin said. “We noticed that there wasn’t anybody inside. That’s pretty common if you are about to be engaged. That was our first combat indicator.”

Sgt. Tomlin sent a sniper team to scan the area for enemy fighters. It was too late. “Pretty much as soon as they got into position, the main element started receiving machine-gun and [rocket propelled grenade] fire,” he said.

Sgt. Tomlin’s platoon quickly moved to a defensive position. It was ambushed by an enemy force six times larger than its own, consisting of 300 fighters. Sgt. Tomlin withdrew his snipers while his men regrouped. Meanwhile, enemy fighters moved up a nearby alley that the scout platoon’s machine guns could not cover, advancing to within mere yards of his position.

“I realized just how close they were at 15 meters. At this point, it was anybodys game,” he said, pointing out that the U.S. Army’s advantage in training and equipment is largely negated in such close combat. “I knew we had to get [the platoon] out of that situation,” he said. “We were able to push them back down the alley with hand grenades and small-arms fire, and then we chased them down the hill into the village.”

The battle raged for more than six hours in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. Sgt. Tomlin was dehydrated and near exhaustion. Yet he pressed on, directing the counterattack and calling for air support. Meanwhile, reinforcements arrived on nearby hilltops to protect the platoon’s flank.

“What kept me going was the constant threat,” Sgt. Tomlin said of his motivation to keep fighting against an overwhelming enemy and in the stifling heat.

Several hours later, the Taliban fighters had been driven from the field. More than 50 enemy fighters were killed in the battle, including two Taliban leaders.

“No Americans got killed in the battle,” Sgt. Tomlin said. “I would say we were pretty lucky, and I have always said that I would rather be lucky than good.”

On that day, Sgt. Tomlin was both lucky and good, his admirers say.

At a ceremony on March 22, 2008, at Fort Bragg, N.C., he was awarded the Silver Star by President George W. Bush.

Sgt. Tomlin remains humble. “It’s really more of a situation that the enemy puts you in, rather than a situation you put yourself in. As an infantryman, my job is to destroy the enemy, and that’s what we did. So I was pretty surprised when I found out that I would be receiving any award for valor at all.”

c Tim Holbert is program director of the American Veterans Center in Arlington.

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