U.S. Army / Silver Star
His platoon outnumbered by insurgents, he gave a risky order that saved all of his men
First Lt. Gregory Ambrosia knew the risk. But despite his platoon’s hand grenades and machine-gun fire, the Afghan insurgents continued to move closer. If the enemy gained the high ground, they would pick off his men.
So Ambrosia ordered American gun trucks down in the valley to unleash their heavy machine guns and automatic grenade launchers toward the mountainside — at his platoon’s position.
Bullets snapped overhead and skipped off stones as he and his men tucked in tight behind the rocks. Grenades exploded a few feet away.
And their day was just beginning.
The platoon had flown into the Watapor Valley in eastern Afghanistan the night before and established observation posts halfway up the mountain on both sides of the valley. From there they could protect an American convoy arriving to meet with village elders the next morning.
By dawn on Sept. 25, 2007, the soldiers of Able Company, 2-503rd, 173rd Airborne Brigade, were intercepting enemy radio traffic: Fighters were gathering weapons and massing for an attack.
Afghan insurgents often exaggerate over the radio, knowing U.S. soldiers are listening. A broadcast of a well-planned, complex attack by a force of 100 might actually be a couple of fighters taking potshots.
But Ambrosia and his men knew not to underestimate the fighters in this valley. The platoon had come here once before, about three months earlier on the Fourth of July. When that firefight ended the next day, two Able company soldiers were dead and five had been wounded.
Now they heard more radio chatter. “They were talking about overrunning our position and trying to take us captive,” said Ambrosia, then age 25 and Able Company’s executive officer. “That was their goal.”
Just after 8 a.m., the insurgents attacked the trucks in the valley and Ambrosia’s position. The key, he knew, was to keep them from flanking his position and gaining the high ground. The enemy moved closer. Ambrosia heard the firing positions change, creeping farther up the mountain. As usual, he couldn’t see the enemy, but he estimated the force at 30.
“I was over there for 16 months, and there were some times that our company was in contact three times a day,” Ambrosia says. “And there was (only) one time that I saw a person shooting at me. The rest of the time it was tracer fire coming from shadows.”
After the firepower from the American Humvees stalled the attack, the insurgent machine-gun fire tapered, and the trucks left to evacuate two soldiers with gunshot wounds.
By that point, however, Ambrosia could call on all the firepower in that corner of Afghanistan — mortars, artillery, bombers, jet fighters and helicopter gun ships. The mountainside fell silent three hours later, after Ambrosia had raked the area around his position with 13 bombs, 82 artillery rounds, 150 mortar rounds, a dozen Hellfire missiles and thousands of machine-gun and rifle rounds.
Over the radio, Ambrosia heard an insurgent tell others to go home and pray for those who had been killed.
A helicopter delivered the soldiers from the second observation post to Ambrosia’s position, and the reunited platoon hiked five hours back to base camp. As they walked, they listened to radio chatter about insurgents planning to attack the patrol. Ambrosia ordered more artillery and mortar to hammer likely ambush spots.
Throughout the hillside fight and the long walk home, none of Ambrosia’s soldiers was hurt. He knows it could have been far worse.
On July 11, 2008, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, awarded Ambrosia a Silver Star during a visit to the Korengal Outpost.
Two days later and a few miles away, 200 insurgents attacked a platoon from the battalion’s Chosen Company, killing nine U.S. soldiers and wounding 27.
Brian Mockenhaupt is a Detroit-based writer who is an Alicia Patterson fellow reporting on the physical and psychological effects of war. He served as a noncommissioned officer with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from 2002 to 2005, spending 18 months in Iraq.
U.S. Army / Silver Star
Born May 27, 1982, in Indianapolis. Moved at age 5 to Knoxville, Tenn., where his family still lives.
Entered West Point in June 2001, graduated May 28, 2005.
Has served one 15-month tour in Afghanistan.
WHAT HE DID
His platoon outnumbered and surrounded on a mountainside and with the enemy closing in, he directed American gunners below to fire on his position in order to buy time for help to arrive.
WHERE HE IS NOW
B Company Commander for 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.
WHY HE JOINED THE ARMY
“I had taken an American history class in high school where I learned about West Point, and who went there, and I was just really impressed with it. That was the gateway. It sounded really interesting for a young guy to be able to go out and do everything the Army lets you do. It seemed like an adventure.”
Afghanistan / Watapor Valley