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Project Hero


Project Hero: SFC Frederick Rowell, Silver Star

valor1smFor some, bravery and courage is rooted so deep, the heroic becomes almost common place. Sergeant First Class Frederick Rowell exemplifies this fine character trait. SFC Rowell, a US Army infantryman, was deployed to Iraq for two tours, both of which took place during some of the most pivotal moments of that ongoing campaign, and both times he distinguished himself with valor and heroism.

SGT Rowell was not originally scheduled to deploy to Iraq with a combat unit. In fact, he was an instructor at Ft. Polk. Rowell had joined the army at age 17, and had served 6 years stateside duty until then. But when a call came down for volunteers to join an infantry unit deploying to Iraq, without consulting anyone he stepped forward. 48 hours later he had said good bye to his wife and family and was on an airplane bound for Kuwait.

In the thunder run that was the invasion of Iraq, then-Sergeant Rowell was involved in the critical fight for the Baghdad International Airport. April 4, 2003 was the first great test of this young non-commissioned officer’s dedication to his fellow soldiers. Remember, he’s just joined them and hasn’t really trained with them extensively to this point. But as you’ll see he rose to the occasion.

After dismounting his Bradley fighting vehicle, Rowell’s unit came under heavy automatic and rocket-propelled grenade fire. After assessing the severity of the fire, Rowell covered his comrades as they fell back to their Bradley. During this withdrawal phase, he noticed another fire team was pinned down far from cover and taking heavy fire. For those of you unfamiliar with the structure of an infantry platoon, two fire teams make up a squad of about 10 infantrymen. 4 squads make up a platoon. So a fire team is about 5 soldiers led by a sergeant.

Once his own fire team was in the relative safety of his Bradley fighting vehicle, Rowell did not hesitate to act to aid the pinned down fire team.

Charging across about 300 meters of open terrain under fire from Iraqi forces, Rowell arrived at the location of the isolated fire team to find it leaderless and with a severely wounded soldier. Rowell took charge and sprang into action. He gave the team direction, telling them where to concentrate their fire and deploying them to maximize it. After he had them laying down cover fire he began applying first aid to the wounded soldier. As the enemy attack became more focused and more intense, Rowell threw himself on top of the soldier, using his own body as a shield while another Bradley fighting vehicle attempted to close in on their beleaguered position.

“I had to lay on him. He was in shock, moving his legs around and the rounds were coming in everywhere. I was afraid he was going to get hit again. So, I laid on top of him. About this time I got shot in the plates, in my Interceptor Body Armor. I got shot there.”

As he was covering the injured soldier with his own body, Rowell took a direct hit from an AK-47 round in his back. The good news is, it was stopped by his body armor. But it was a round that would have almost certainly killed the soldier under Rowell who had been stripped of his protective vest in order to treat his wounds. With the evacuation vehicle blocked from coming any closer, Rowell hoisted the wounded soldier onto his back and ran some 100 meters to that vehicle in order to evacuate the severely wounded soldier. His action was credited with saving the soldier’s life. He then lead the withdrawal of the rest of the fire team to the safety of US lines.

4 years later, now Staff Sergeant Rowell was again deployed to Iraq, as a part of the Surge.

On September 11th of 2007, Rowell, now squad leader, was on a scouting mission to observe insurgent activity in a volatile part of Baghdad. The idea, of course, was to get soldiers into areas they’d never previously been in to begin to root out the terrorists and protect the population.

His squad was split into two observation posts in two buildings. They were there to observe activity on a road on which IEDs were frequently planted. As Rowell said, it was a ‘real bad’ part of Baghdad. He and his soldiers were located on the 2nd floor of an abandoned house when they observed some activity during the night.

An enemy scout was snooping around the house in which they were located. He tried to get into the door then backed off and disappeared before they could do anything. Rowell hoped they hadn’t been compromised, but in a few minutes 3 of the enemy rushed across the area near the house and up to it, then withdrew. What the soldiers didn’t know is the enemy had planted a 2L soda bottle loaded with homemade explosives and a pressure plate near the door. The terrorists then opened fire from three different directions. SSG Rowell contacted his platoon headquarters and reported that he was under fire and his position had been compromised. His platoon leader ordered them to withdraw to his position.

As enemy fire poured in on them, Rowell planned to move his squad to the other observation post. He planned his route and the order in which they’d move out of the building, and how they’d support each other as they moved. He lined the men of his squad up in the order they’d go and then gave them the order to go. Rowell was second in line.

But the first soldier down the stairs was severely injured by the IED the terrorists had planted earlier. As Rowell stepped out of the door, the blast blew Rowell off the second floor landing and knocked him unconscious. He lay there for 4 or 5 minutes before regaining consciousness as the battle raged around him. His squad had pulled back into the house.

Rowell regained his focus – despite being later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury – and looked around to assess the situation. He said “I saw a body out there and I saw it moving.” He rose to his feet, running to the aid of his comrade, Spc Jonathan Prusner. Prusner’s left leg had been blown off below the knee. Under heavy fire, Rowell pulled Prusner back into the building, treated him and defended him from the numerous attackers. In the meantime his platoon leader had requested the quick reaction force, a Stryker platoon, to move to the ambush location to rescue the squad.

On other thing I should add – SSG Rowell was completely deaf from the IED explosion at this time. He couldn’t hear a thing. And although his hearing would return at a later date, he was unable to communicate by radio at this time. So he had only one option left to him when it became necessary to direct the fire of the quick reaction force upon their arrival.

He ran back out into the fire storm and physically directed the reinforcements fire onto the enemy positions. He then helped evacuate Spc. Prusner into one of the Strykers. Finally on the way out of the kill-zone, Rowell manned the roof gun on the Stryker as they evacuated the injured to a combat hospital.

In these two events, Rowell’s heroism was undeniable. He is the epitome of a combat infantryman and non-commissioned officer. By ignoring his own safety and using his body as a shield to protect a wounded soldier in 2003, he was awarded the Silver Star. For coming to the aid of Spc. Prusner and displaying steadfast courage under harrowing fire in 2007, he earned the Bronze Star Medal with the “V” device for Valor.

Recently promoted to Sergeant First Class, Rowell’s reaction is precisely what you would expect – “I was only doing my job”, he says. He has become very good friends with the young man that he saved, but who lost his leg. That’s because they’re both recovering together at the Warrior Transition Center at Walter Reed Medical Center. The bond they formed in combat has helped them both in their recovery process. And SFC Rowell also credits the rock steady support he’s received from his wife and family. Said Rowell:

“My wife has been there to help me out. Been very supportive. All around I think the greatest Army wife out there ever.”

What is it SFC Rowell wants to do as soon as he’s recovered from his injuries? He says, “I want to get back to soldiers”.

And the soldiers who end up with SFC Rowell as their platoon sergeant will be among the most fortunate infantrymen in the Army. And that is why SFC Frederick Rowell, United States Army infantryman, and awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star with Valor device and Purple Heart during two deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is someone you should know.

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Project Hero – SSG Jason Fetty, Silver Star

valor1sm

SSG Jason Fetty was assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team, which, as the name denotes, isn’t a combat unit. It is a civil affairs unit with a much different role. He was a member of the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team or PRT as they’re known, and very proud of what he’d been able to accomplish during his tour in Afghanistan.

Provisional reconstruction teams serve a vital role in Afghanistan as they do in Iraq. They complement maneuver forces in separating the enemy from the people, connecting people to the Afghan government and helping the government meet the needs of the people.

That, of course, makes the 25 PRTs’ achievements in Afghanistan — including the opening of a new emergency room for almost 1 million Khost province citizens — prime targets for terroristsd.

That’s exactly what happened when members of the Khost PRT joined officials from throughout the province to celebrate the facility’s opening Feb. 20th of last year. “We were all there to celebrate the fact that we had come together, worked together as a team to achieve a common desire, and that was to help the people,” said Navy Cmdr. John F.G. Wade, who commanded Joint Provisional Reconstruction Team Khost during the late-February incident.

But among the medical professionals who had come from all corners of Khost was a man in a doctor’s lab coat nobody else recognized.

Fetty, a PRT member who was pulling security outside the building alongside paratroopers of the newly arrived 82nd Airborne Division, watched as a sea of white lab coats came rushing out of the building and past him. After more than 10 months in Khost, Fetty had worked closely with the local medical community and recognized each doctor’s face.

He turned to ensure the 82nd Airborne Division troops didn’t fire and cleared them from the area, noting that “those guys had no way of knowing these were actual doctors. I was the only one who knew they weren’t bad guys.”

When Fetty turned back toward the building, the “bad guy” was standing directly in front of him, disguised as a doctor. Fetty had never laid eyes on him before and immediately knew something was wrong. “He was crazy in the eyes. He looked like he was on drugs, and he was acting very erratic. He definitely didn’t look right,” Fetty said.

“Every soldier who has been in combat or been downrange knows when something is not right,” he continued. “You can feel it. You can see it. It’s a general sinking feeling that things are not going to go right. You feel it in your gut.”

Fetty’s military training kicked in. He began going through his “escalation of force” commands: “Stop. Get down.” The man ignored him, and tried to grab Fetty.

Fetty wanted to fire a warning shot, but feared it would ricochet and hit the hospital or someone gathered in the crowd around it. The suspect continued to close in on him and grabbed the barrel of his rifle. At this point, Fetty started to fear the worst. “I was pretty sure he had a (suicide) vest on under his lab coat, but I still didn’t know for sure,” he said.

Rather than shirking him off, Fetty used the distance his weapon created between him and his attacker to his advantage. “I knew that if he grabbed hold of my armor or my person in any way, I was toast,” he said. “There was no getting out of it at that point. I wouldn’t be able to stop him from detonating himself.”

He slowly maneuvered toward a clearing between the hospital and the nearby administrative huts, away from the crowd. “I figured that if I stalled him long enough, everyone else would do their job and get the area cleared,” he said.

Fetty kept his eyes locked with his attackers’. “The last thing I wanted him to do was lose focus on me, because he didn’t want me,” he said. “The governor of the province was there, and he was the primary target. Suicide bombers rarely attack Americans; they want government officials. So I had to keep his focus on me.”

As the struggle continued, Fetty recognized he probably wouldn’t survive. “You resign yourself pretty quick. You just stop thinking at that point about yourself,” he said. “It was either going to be me or 20 other people back there. … Suicide bombers are next to impossible to stop. All you can do is limit the damage that they can do.”

The chain of events “becomes sketchy” when Fetty recalls what happened after he maneuvered the attacker around the corner from the crowd. “Things happened very, very quickly,” he said. Friends told Fetty he tackled the attacker, but he doesn’t remember that. He recalls hitting him with the butt of his weapon, then firing warning shots at the ground near his feet.

The attacker came at him, so Fetty fired into his lower legs, then his kneecap. “He stood back up, even though I gave him a crippling wound,” he said. “He got back up and tried to come at me again.”

Fetty said he remembers hearing the blast of weapons from other members of the security team firing at the attacker. He shot again, at the man’s stomach. He’d heard that it’s safe to fire into a suicide vest, but didn’t want to test his luck by firing into the attacker’s chest. “That’s a bad way for me to end up in a bunch of pieces,” he said.

Then the attacker looked at Fetty with “the scariest face I’ve ever seen.” The standoff had turned personal. “Earlier, he just looked crazy, but now he wanted to kill me,” Fetty said. “I knew what his intent was, and I abandoned all hopes of killing the guy before he would explode.”

Fetty took three steps before making a “Hollywood dive.” The blast came as he hit the ground, peppering him with shrapnel in the face, leg and ankle. All that remained where he had struggled with the attacker was a big hole in the ground.

For several months after the incident, Fetty second-guessed his actions. He fretted that several other soldiers and an Afghan security guard had received shrapnel wounds. Should he have shot sooner or done something differently? “Maybe I could have done it so nobody got hurt, or at least just I got hurt,” he said.
All he had wanted to do was protect his fellow soldiers, the Afghan people they were helping and the new emergency room his provincial reconstruction team had spent months working to make a reality.

In the end, he accepted that he’d made the best of a bad situation by limiting collateral damage as he applied the training that had been drilled into him. “We train hard,” and for every imaginable scenario, including dealings with a suicide bomber, he said. “You go through your rules of engagement and pray that it all works out the way it’s supposed to. This time it happened to work out.”

For his actions that day the 32-year-old pharmacist from Parkersburg, W. Va., became the first Army reservist to receive the Silver Star for valor in Afghanistan. Fetty’s commander said his actions went far beyond saving “countless, countless lives.”

“His actions, along with the actions of others on the team, really prevented a strategic catastrophe,” said Cmdr.. Wade.

Although he’s proud to receive the Silver Star, Fetty said anyone in his shoes would have acted the same way. “I don’t really believe in valor that much,” he said. “It’s more like the set of circumstances you’re put in. I think there are plenty of people over there who are just as brave as I am, who fortunately never found themselves in that situation.”

He said he’s convinced that everyone possesses traits of heroism. “It’s in every human nature to protect someone else,” he said, particularly those they’ve bonded with through hundreds of combat missions and countless hours of ping-pong. “It’s a combination of training, loyalty to your friends and basic human nature,” he said.

As of October 2007, Fetty was still assigned to a medical holding company at Fort Bragg, N.C., but said he looks forward to getting back to his troops to instill some of the lessons he’s learned. “You stick to the basics,” he said. “Always have a plan, stick to the plan, but be prepared to change the plan when you need to.”

Looking back, he said he’s glad he felt compelled to volunteer for duty in Afghanistan, even changing his military specialty so he could deploy as part of the civil affairs team.

He’s convinced the PRTs are making “a huge difference” in Afghanistan. “It’s absolutely vital,” he said. “We build roads, build bridges, improve health care. The Afghan government doesn’t really have the means to fix itself by itself.”

Working among the Afghan people was “amazing,” he said. “Every time we’d go and stop someplace, people were happy to see us. Kids knew ‘PRT’ meant that we were going to fix something. We were going to improve their life in some way.”

Wade said Fetty’s actions during a celebration of a PRT milestone “exemplified what we are trying to achieve.” By standing firmly in the face of danger, Fetty demonstrated “that we really are there to help the people of Afghanistan,” he said.

Fetty’s actions had a ripple effect in Khost province, he said. Furious that terrorists would try to undo the progress being made, local leaders and mullahs staged a peace rally following the would-be attack. They decreed acts of violence “unIslamic,” Wade said, and helped get word out to the people “that the United States and coalition are truly here to help.”

Wade said he’s glad Fetty is being recognized for his actions, “and for the tactical and strategic impact he had.”

“It was an incredible honor to have served with him,” he said.

SSG Fetty is a man who put his life on hold to participate in something bigger than himself. He volunteered for Afghanistan in order to make a positive difference in the lives of others. While some people talk about that, he did it. And when confronted with a man who would destroy all the good he had labored so hard to help build, he valorously took action which assured that didn’t happen. That’s why SSG Jason Fetty of Joint Provisional Reconstruction Team Khost, pharmacist, reservist, patriot and recipient of the Silver Star is someone you should know.

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