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Thomas Lane Cathey

U.S. Army Reserve / Bronze Star with Valor

His convoy outnumbered by insurgents, colonel risked his life to save 10 Iraqi soldiers

The Iraqi army soldiers had holed up in an abandoned house on the morning of April 10, 2007, taking refuge from the barrage of gunfire.

Their battalion’s move to seal off the Baghdad neighborhood for a building-to-building search had not gone well, as they were met by heavy resistance. Security had collapsed, and the Iraqis were down to their last magazines of ammunition.

Col. Tom Cathey, who headed the battalion’s U.S. advisory team, feared that the squad would be overrun.

“There’s just no way we could let that happen,” said Cathey.

He knew extracting the squad would be difficult and that as soon as his rescue team left its position, “we would be surrounded 360 degrees by insurgents.”

Indeed, there were several hundred.

The convoy of advisers — 13 Americans and two Iraqis in four heavily armored Humvees — set out to reclaim the trapped unit. They had barely started through the streets when they surprised about 10 insurgents taking a break in an alley.

Cathey’s vehicle was in the lead, and his machine gunner wiped out the insurgents. At the same time, however, a grenade from a second-floor window bounced and detonated under the Humvee, blowing out the power steering and at least two tires.

The Humvee backed up so the gunner could reload. Then it pulled back into the alley’s entrance, shielding the rest of the convoy and suppressing enemy fire as the other vehicles sped by.

More trouble loomed as Cathey’s vehicle again took the lead. Streetwise insurgents had hurried to a second alley and set up an ambush.

“The second our bumper turned into the alleyway, the whole alley turned red with tracers,” Cathey recalled. Again his gunner ended the battle.

Cathey located the trapped Iraqi squad, sorted through the confusion and loaded 10 Iraqi soldiers into the Humvees. They were stacked across the back seats “like cordwood,” said Cathey’s driver, Master Sgt. Jack Crossman.

By now, Crossman’s vehicle had lost all its tires, power steering and transmission line. Somehow, he kept it moving.

An Iraqi waved down the vehicles to report that another squad of Iraqi soldiers was pinned down in a nearby school, so Cathey’s convoy responded. He positioned the Humvees to shield the front of the school, then radioed the Iraqi army to send more vehicles to evacuate the second squad.

Two Iraqi army attempts to reach the school were turned back under heavy fire.

Cathey and his men had held their ground for 20 minutes but drew more insurgents the longer they lingered.

“We were probably outnumbered at least 20 to 1 down the alleyway,” Cathey said. “We were completely encircled.”

Unable to hold position much longer, Cathey gave the Iraqi squad leader a choice: His men could try to escape on foot alongside the convoy or sit tight and await reinforcements. The squad leader chose to stay.

As the convoy headed back toward base, it again ran a gauntlet of enemy fire, including another grenade that exploded under Cathey’s limping Humvee. After eight hours of battle, the advisory team’s vehicles were battered but its personnel returned unscathed.

Cathey offered to return to the school with fresh vehicles to pick up the squad left behind. Seemingly inspired by the Americans’ willingness to risk their lives, however, the Iraqi officer in charge sent his troops for the rescue.

Cathey felt rewarded. After eight months advising the Iraqi army, he said its taking responsibility in that episode was a “turning point.”

Throughout the rescue, Cathey thought of the consequences if it had failed — if the marooned Iraqi soldiers had been killed, even beheaded.

“Can you imagine how the insurgents would have played that up?” he said.

And to him, the life of an Iraqi private was as important as that of a general: “They’ve got families, too,” he said.

Crossman found Cathey remarkably calm during the fighting. Cathey said he was never scared because his team’s experience and aggressive spirit made him believe they could “fight our way through almost anything.”

Cathey earned a Bronze Star with Valor for combat bravery for saving the lives of 10 Iraqi soldiers. His commendation read in part:

“He exhibited uncommon heroism, valor, courage, selfless service, a relentless offensive spirit to find and fix the enemy, and a common ethos among fighting men that no soldier will be left behind.”

Peter Slavin, a freelance writer based outside Washington. D.C., did a tour in Army intelligence in Vietnam and is a former features writer for the Army, Navy and Air Force Times.

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Thomas L. Cathey

Col. Tom Cathey led a daring charge that resulted in the rescue of 10 Iraqi soldiers who were trapped under heavy enemy fire in an abandoned building. (Photo courtesy of Tom Cathey)

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Thomas Lane Cathey

U.S. Army Reserve / Bronze Star with Valor

Born Sept. 15, 1962, in Waynesville, N.C., and is a lifelong resident of the state.

Wife, Amy; sons Joshua, 18, and twins Seth and Jared, 13.

Joined reserve unit in August 1980 and received second lieutenant commission in May 1982. Deployed to Iraq in June 2006 with 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division; also served as Chief, Military Transition Team (advisory) to 4th Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division.

Led a convoy through a series of battles in the streets of Baghdad to rescue 10 Iraqi soldiers trapped under fire in an abandoned building.

Lives in Asheville, N.C., where he is a salesman for Vulcan Materials Co. His reserve duty is with the 108th Training Command.

“My dad was an Army medic before I was born. I always looked up to him as a man of character, honor and integrity. I associated these traits with those of a soldier. ... I had looked forward to joining the military ever since I was a little boy.”

Iraq / Baghdad

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