Project Hero: SFC Gerald Wolford, Silver Star Posted by: McQ
on Saturday, September 23, 2006
Today we honor a member of the 3/325th Airborne Infantry Regiment (AIR) of the 82nd Airborne Division. The "Falcons". As proud former member of the 1/325th, I'm pleased to be able to tell SFC Gerald A. Wolford's story and how he came to be awarded the Silver Star.
The 82nd remains a storied unit because of men like SFC Wolford. But as you'll see, he wasn't the only hero that day. The synopsis of the story:
[SFC] Gerald A. Wolford of the 82nd Airborne Division received the Silver Star for his actions during a four-hour battle to secure three river crossings in As Samawah. Wolford placed his heavy-machine-gun vehicle between the enemy and the dismounted infantrymen accompanying him. When the vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, he ordered his crew to pull out while he remained to direct fire on the enemy position. "For the remainder of the fight, SFC Wolford continually exposed himself to enemy fire as he made efforts to aid others to withdraw."
In the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, SFC Wolford led Soldiers as part of a ground attack convoy north from Kuwait to Tallil Airfield, southeast of Baghdad. From that point, the Euphrates River remained the dominant obstacle at which the enemy could block the liberation of Baghdad. Since bridge crossings operations under fire present an exceptionally challenging military mission, units of the elite 82d Airborne Division were chosen for the mission.
"Our mission was to secure bridges across the Euphrates River in As-Samawah. There was a series that we were told to secure and, because we were mounted in HMMWVs, the Battalion Commander ordered us to secure the route and do a reconnaissance of the route for the follow-on dismounted units."
Wolford's section completed its reconnaissance and covered the movement of the dismounted units. "When they were at the first of the bridges," he says, "I told them to hold up and my gunner identified an enemy vehicle."
The enemy vehicle was a pickup truck outfitted with a machine gun on the back. It was positioned on the far side of the Euphrates, about 200 meters away. Wolford recounts
"I confirmed it was the enemy and gave him the order to fire ...for our battalion they were the first shots of the war."
The initial burst of gunfire took out the machine gun in the back of the pickup, and a second burst from a .50 caliber machine gun disabled the vehicle completely.
"Once the vehicle was disabled," he says, "we saw other insurgents popping out of the buildings."
The enemy were positioned in foxholes and had the buildings fortified with sandbags. "They were determined to take a stand on the far side of the river," says Wolford.
As his unit came under machinegun fire, Wolford recognized that the American rifle fire was having no impact on enemy forces in their reinforced positions. Therefore, he decided to bring heavier firepower to bear. Wolford recalls
"We had AT-4s, which are 74mm anti-tank missiles that are shoulder-fired. This was a good tactical opportunity to shoot a missile. So I fired one of those into the house and the whole hut just collapsed."
The missile silenced the enemy machinegun fire, putting the heaviest weapon the enemy had on that side of the river out of action.
Almost immediately, Wolford's team came under fire from a different quarter - a reinforced foxhole that was effectively shielding the enemy within from the Americans' Mark-19 grenade launcher. According to Wolford
"That gave us another chance to fire an AT-4. I readied another one to fire and then that position was silenced."
Having silenced the enemy positions, Wolford began to advance toward the second bridge where his unit came upon another friendly unit which was pinned down.
Wolford's team then began its advance by HMMWV to the second bridge, focusing their attention to the far side of the river, from which most enemy fire was coming. As they moved forward, they came under fire from an enemy mortar position. With well placed fire, they silenced the mortar fire. Approaching the second bridge, they crossed from open rural terrain into an increasingly built-up urban area. As a result, accompanying dismounted forces had to take care to clear buildings as they went, thus ensuring the Americans didn't come under fire from by-passed hostile forces.
As his team neared the second bridge, Wolford noticed a friendly unit taking heavy enemy fire and waving for assistance. He recalls
"I dismounted, moved to their position, and asked them what they wanted to do. They said they needed to move forward but they were pinned down. They identified to me the location of the enemy gunner pinning them down. They had been receiving heavy machinegun fire, and they'd been hit with rocket-propelled grenades from a building."
Wolford quickly took stock of the situation and determined that the best course of action was to move up below the second bridge and position his HMMWV between the pinned down men and the enemy. He recalls that
"The road was dipping down and we were right underneath the second bridge, so they couldn't hit us with any kind of artillery."
This position was also flanked by buildings, affording good cover from direct fire, so that the only part of Wolford's vehicle that was exposed was the machine-gunner on top.
However, once in position, Wolford's team came under rocket propelled grenade fire. He recalls that
"My gunner and I both saw an RPG fired at our position, and I had time to turn and yell "RPG!" so the two other men had time to get down."
The RPG hit the bridge right above the HMMWV, wounding two of Wolford's men. Wolford was knocked down by the blast, but quickly got back to his feet and checked on his men. Both were responsive, so he helped them up. In the meantime, his machine-gunner had returned fire, silencing the position from which the RPG had been launched.
Now consider again what he ordered done. He positioned his HMMWV between the enemy and the friendly unit to give the friendly unit cover with which to maneuver.
Since his HMMWV had only suffered minor damage from the RPG blast, Wolford used it to shield his wounded Soldiers as he moved them to the casualty collection point and into the care of the medics.
Refusing medical care for his injuries, Wolford moved forward once again, so as to provide his men with cover.
"At this time," he says, "the vehicle got hit by the second RPG. It was firing straight down the road and, because our fire was focusing on where the dismounts needed to go, we didn't even see the guy that fired it."
The round went underneath the vehicle and destroyed the right rear tire. Despite the impact, Wolford decided to stay there. "It was still the best position for us," he says. Just as the attacker readied another RPG, he was spotted by the Americans. Wolford observes the attacker
"He must have thought he was bulletproof. He knelt down in the middle of the road, and dropped another round in it. We engaged him, and we didn't have to worry about that RPG anymore."
In all, Wolford's team spent over three hours engaging hostile forces on both sides of the Euphrates River. They placed heavy suppressive fire on enemy forces, covering line units as they maneuvered to the objective. Wolford and his team played a key role in his battalion's success in crossing the river and in opening the way to Baghdad.
For that action, SFC Wolford was awarded the Silver Star. As with most heroes, what impressed him most were his men:
Those young men, they just blew my mind. I never had a question that they'd do what I said. When I said, 'follow me', they were right there. When I said, 'this is where we're going,' there was no hesitation on their part. They were right there with me... Being awarded the Silver Star is an incredible honor, but having my men receive awards for their valor is what made my accomplishments honorable.
When asked about his award, Wolford is quick to note the actions of his cohorts from the 3rd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, during the four-hour battle March 31 and April 1.
He mentions Spc. Cory Christiansen, for example - the gunner who never left the turret despite being nearly shot 23 times. Or Spc. Michael Woodward, a driver, who stayed calm and returned to the fight after taking shrapnel during a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
Spc. Derick Rippee returned to battle, not once but twice. The first time after he was wounded in the grenade attack. The second time was after he passed out in the truck.
"The only reason that I was recognized was because of the work of my guys," Wolford said last week before heading to Oregon on leave.
"Those guys, I don't think, got the recognition they deserved."
SFC Wolford suffered a shrapnel wound under his eye. SFC Wolford and his crew epitomize the everyday valor displayed by members of our armed forces. The camaraderie, professionalism and the vow never to let their buddies down are all evident in the way this crew fought, endured and persevered. They are soldiers of whom we should all be proud.
PROJECT HERO is an ongoing attempt to highlight the valor of our military as they fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We constantly hear the negative and far to little of the positive and inspiring stories coming out of those countries. This is one small attempt to rectify that. If you know of a story of valor you'd like to see highlighted here (published on Saturday), please contact us. And we'd appreciate your link so we can spread the word.