Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Once you get shot at a couple of times..Well, you don't get used to it." - Sgt. Geoffrey Alexander Emschweiler earns the Commendation Medal for Valor

Army lost " The Game " yesterday to Navy, but they still have soldiers out there who make our nation proud....A newest, greatest generation...those who volunteered to defend our country and have done so with distinction.....Well done.

They make them out of hardy stuff back there in Pennsylvania....

Red Lion soldier on his medal for valor: "Just some guy ... doing his job"

Army Sgt. Geoffrey Alexander Emschweiler, of Red Lion, won the Commendation Medal for Valor for his actions during a firefight in Afghanistan. He still doesn't think he did anything special.

Daily Record/Sunday News
Updated: 12/12/2010 12:45:45 AM EST

York, PA - The July morning Army Sgt. Geoffrey Alexander Emschweiler's unit prepared to go on patrol with members of the Afghan army and national police, the sky above Senjaray, a town just outside of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, was filled with white kites.

That's not all that unusual. Kite flying is a national obsession in Afghanistan. Yet, on this morning, the kites served a nefarious purpose. The kites were a warning, according to an embedded reporter, tipping off the Taliban that the Americans were going to mount a patrol.

The squad -- nine members of Emschweiler's unit accompanied by about 40 Afghan National Police and between

20 and 30 members of the Afghan army -- was setting off from the Pir Mohammed school, a place that has served as a symbol of American involvement in Afghanistan.

American troops opened the school after initially defeating the Taliban, in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. And because of its symbolic value, the school has been a target of insurgent attacks. American and Afghan national forces have tried to secure the school, but with little success. Efforts to secure the school have been thwarted by Taliban fighters lurking in the pomegranate orchard across a canal and a graveyard, invisible.

It was a routine patrol, as if anything in Afghanistan can be routine. The plan was to make a show of force, to get some face-time with the locals and show that the Army was in control. Most of the time, Emschweiler said, the soldiers go out looking to start a fight, to provoke an insurgent attack so they can smoke them out.

The patrol was just outside the school, near a narrow canal that separates the compound from the orchard, when the first shots came from trees.

The plan hadn't survived 50 meters.

* * *

Geoffrey Alexander Emschweiler didn't set out wanting to join the Army.

He comes from a military family. Born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Red Lion and moved to Palm Coast, Fla., when he was in the eighth grade. After he graduated from high school, his family moved back to Red Lion, where his mother runs a day care center.

His father was a member of the Army Special Forces and had served in Grenada, Mogadishu and other places that he's not at liberty to talk about. His brother joined the Army. His grandfather was an Air Force pilot during Vietnam.

Emschweiler, though, was looking at the Coast Guard, mostly as a means of paying for college. He wanted to go to the University of Northwestern Ohio and major in its specialized program in off-road vehicle engineering. The school was expensive, about $70,000.

He had to find a way to pay for it. He finished high school early and went to see about signing up for the Coast Guard, but the service couldn't take him for four months.

Meanwhile, his brother had joined the Army and had given the recruiter his name. The recruiter called him and offered to buy him lunch. He figured he'd at least get a free lunch out of it.
Next thing he knew, he was in infantry training.

And the next thing he knew after that, he was pinned down in a canal in Afghanistan.

* * *

Nothing in the world sounds like the distinctive crack of an AK-47 -- also known as the Kalashnikov, the weapon of choice for insurgents and revolutionaries and just about anyone else in the market for a cheap, reliable automatic weapon.

"You know it when you hear it," Emschweiler said.

The crack is a familiar sound in Afghanistan, as the Taliban insurgents are well-armed with Kalashnikovs, mostly weapons left behind when they chased the Soviet Union from their land. It's a simple weapon, easy to operate and almost impossible to jam, but notoriously inaccurate. The crack, though, is usually enough to inspire fear in those at its business end.

And that crack was the first thing Emschweiler and his unit heard. At the first crack, the members of the Afghan army, in Emschweiler's words, "got on their scooters and took off." The Afghan police accompanying his unit stayed.

"Chaos," is how Emschweiler described it.

A video of the attack, captured by an embedded Fox News reporter, shows just that -- chaos. Soldiers diving for cover, looking to return fire. The repeated cracks from the insurgents' AK-47s, being fired at very close range. The yelling.

Emschweiler and his unit were pinned down, stuck in a canal that ran between the school and the orchard.

It was a hot day. The water, he said, felt good.

* * *

"Once you get shot at a couple of times..." Emschweiler began saying.

He thought for a moment and said, "Well, you don't get used to it."

You learn, though, not to think about it too much. "You think about it later and it's like, 'Wow, that was crazy.' But when it's happening, you just do your job," he said.

The first time he came under fire was in Iraq. He was there for March Madness in '08 -- the fifth anniversary of the war's inception commemorated with waves of insurgent attacks as U.S. forces prepared for a big push to try to stem the violence. His unit did reconnaissance work, traveling in a small team to scout out the enemy's positions and movements.

"We had a lot of RPGs fired at us," he said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades, a favorite weapon of the insurgents. On one patrol, an RPG narrowly missed his unit's Humvee and slammed into a bridge. Volleys of small-arms fire followed. His unit returned fire and got out of Dodge.

"You really don't think about things when they're happening," he said. "Sometimes, you stop for a second and think, 'Wow, what just happened?' But mostly, you just react."

* * *

Emschweiler was hunkered down behind a two-foot-tall mud wall with members of the Afghan National Police. The police had stuck by him and were returning fire, as wild as the incoming fire coming from insurgents no more than 100 meters away. Some were as close as 40 or 50 meters.

It was kind of surprising. The Afghan National Police aren't known for their fighting skill. In fact, Emschweiler said, they are kind of difficult to deal with. On several occasions, his unit would round up bad guys -- people who had weapons and explosives in their homes -- and hand them over to the national police.

"Within a week, we'll see them out on the street," he said. "It's pretty frustrating."

On this day, though, the Afghan police stepped up.

The insurgents were firing wildly at them. They could hear rounds thudding into the wall.

Nothing was going right. The unit's SAW -- Squad Automatic Weapon -- went down and the unit leader was trying to fix it. The heavy machine gun the unit was carrying also jammed.

They tried calling in air support, but that was nixed. The XO -- executive officer -- told them to fight it out. An A-10 jet -- the tank killer -- flew over, mostly as a show of force.

They'd have to extricate themselves.

* * *

The funny thing was, he didn't have to be there.

He had been scheduled to get out of the service in December, but instead he volunteered for this deployment. The Army was offering a $500-a-month bonus to troops who signed up to extend their enlistment, and with a child on the way, he signed up.

His son, Geoffrey Allen, was just born Oct. 4, right after he arrived home for a two-week leave. He and his wife, Jessica, who's originally from New York, were staying at his family's home, next door to the day care center, living in domestic bliss that would be short-lived as Emschweiler was set to head back to Afghanistan.

He will take his son's name back into battle, having had it inked on his forearm.

"He makes me want to do my job better," said Emschweiler, sitting at his mother's kitchen table as Jessica doted on their son. "What we're doing over there is going to have an impact on his future."

* * *

Iraq was "crazy," Emschweiler said.

But Afghanistan was a different beast altogether. "It was like taking a step back in time," he said.

People would live in compounds surrounded by 10-foot-tall walls. The walls, made of mud, were about 10-feet-thick at their base. Inside the walls were small houses, not much more than huts. In the countryside, it was not unusual to drive past vast fields of opium poppies or marijuana.

You'd see farmers tending the fields. They appeared to be farmers. They could have been soldiers, insurgents.

You could never tell who the enemy was. Take the school, Pir Mohammed.

"It gets attacked at least once a week, sometimes two or three times a day," Emschweiler said. "They'd attack to see how we'd react, see our tactics. And nobody seemed to care. Here, we built a school for their kids and they don't care."

* * *

In the canal that July day, Emschweiler thought someone had to do something.

They had been pinned down for some time -- half an hour or so -- and their prospects didn't look good. Their heavy weapons were down for the count. They couldn't get air support. The squad leaders were dealing with other things, fixing the machine gun. Enemy fire was shredding the branches of the trees above their heads.

Emschweiler took over. He had the squad set a couple of Claymores -- directional, high-explosive mines -- to blast into the trees closest to them. The Afghan police were firing wildly into the trees, hitting nothing but pomegranates. He directed their fire. They laid down enough cover fire for everyone to get out of the canal and retreat to the safety behind the school compound walls.

While his unit retreated, according to the Army's account of the fight, Emschweiler provided cover fire so others could retreat safely.

Everybody made it. The unit suffered no casualties. The enemy wasn't so lucky. Later, he said, his unit saw some video from an unmanned aircraft. On the video, they were carting the dead out of the orchard in wheelbarrows.

The whole firefight lasted maybe an hour.

"But it seemed like 10 minutes," Emschweiler said. "After it was over, it was, 'That was crazy.'"

* * *

Not long after the firefight, Emschweiler learned that his commanding officer had put him up for a Commendation Medal for Valor -- a pretty serious award. Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, presented him with the medal during a visit to the war zone.

The official Army narrative for the firefight cites Emschweiler's "exceptional intestinal fortitude, and personal courage while under heavy enemy fire." It cites his leadership in rallying Afghan forces and directing their fire accurately at Taliban positions.

"Because of SGT Emschwiler's actions, the Afghan forces rallied together and successfully broke contact from the enemy ambush with no casualties," the summary said. "With disregard for his own life, SGT Emschweiler provided suppressive fire so his soldiers could break contact to better covered and concealed positions."

Emschweiler said he still not sure exactly why he got the medal. He said he was just doing his job, that someone had to take control of the situation and get them out of that canal. It wasn't like he did some kind of Rambo-storming-the-hill stunt.

"I don't think I did anything extraordinary," he said. "Anybody else on our team would have done the same thing. I'm just some guy who was doing his job."

A second commendation

While this story was being prepared, Geoffrey Alexander Emschweiler earned a second Army Commendation Medal with Valor.

Via e-mail, edited only for spelling and typos, he described the events that led to his earning the award:

"It was at our combat outpost Senjaray, Zhari district. A suicide bomber hit one of our units as they were coming back from a routine patrol.

"I can't tell you how many where killed or who but several were killed and many wounded. Then our entire outpost came under heavy attack from all sides so we had to run to
re-enforce those who had been hit.

"My unit was relaxing and we heard the explosion which was really big, and when I say big, it was. I have blown up a lot of things and been blown up, but this was big.

"Anyway we ran to our entry point that was hit and we came under heavy fire, small arms and (rocket-propelled grenades) fire. After trying to suppress the insane amount of contact we were taking, I ran out with just a few guys to grab the casualties from the position they were pinned down in, and we ourselves then got pinned down. It wasn't until they brought out trucks with heavy machine guns that we could take the casualties back in."

"The whole firefight was about 2 1/2 hours of constant fire.

"Some other things happened but I can't release it to the press."

What is the Commendation Medal with Valor?

The Army Commendation Medal is awarded to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving in any capacity with the Army, distinguishes himself or herself by heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service. Awards of the ARCOM may be made for acts of valor performed under circumstances which are of lesser degree than required for award of the Bronze Star Medal. (Source: U.S. Army)

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