U.S. Army Reserve / Silver Star
'Those men were my family,
and when family members are in trouble, you help them.'
He didn’t have to go back out into the kill zone. He had barely made it through the ambush, and people would have understood. But Jeremy Church’s friends were still out there, bleeding and dying, in a maelstrom of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs and machine-gun fire.
So he went back.
“I don’t think I did anything extraordinary or special,” Church says of the actions that led to his Silver Star, the first awarded to a reservist in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “I know my buddies would have done the same thing if they were capable of doing it, if they weren’t injured. Those men were my family, and when family members are in trouble, you help them.”
The ambush had started four miles back up the road, as Pfc. Church drove the lead Humvee in a 26-truck convoy escorting Kellogg Brown & Root fuel tankers to Baghdad International Airport on April 9, 2004. Enemy attacks had recently skyrocketed across Iraq, and soldiers from the Bartonville, Ill.-based 724th Transportation Company had been told to expect contact. But no one expected this, the biggest, longest ambush of the Iraq war.
Moments after the shooting started, two rounds smashed through the windshield of Church’s truck and hit 1st Lt. Matt Brown, the convoy commander, in the helmet and face. Blood poured from his shredded scalp and left eye.
It was Church’s first combat experience, he says. “When they started firing at us, that was the first time I’d ever been engaged. Far from the last, but that was the first.”
He drove on tires flattened by a roadside bomb, firing his M-16 out the driver’s side window. He dug out a bandage and told Brown to press it over his eye, then fielded frantic radio calls from KBR drivers whose trucks were shot up and losing speed.
“You’ve gotta keep going,” Church, then 26, encouraged them. “Just keep pushing forward.”
Through mile after mile of gunfire and explosions, Church guided the convoy down the highway. Is there any daylight in this? he wondered. When are we going to get through?
Then he saw salvation: tanks and Humvees from an American cavalry unit.
Church helped Brown to a casualty collection point, then looked around. Only half the trucks had made it. His friends were still out there. So Church led cavalry troopers back into a kill zone littered with blown-up and burning trucks.
A half-mile down the road he found the assistant convoy commander’s disabled Humvee, packed with 10 men picked up along the ambush route. Most were wounded, and Church loaded them into the cavalry Humvee.
But space was tight, so Church and another soldier volunteered to stay behind. Insurgents closed in as the Humvee pulled away.
“They didn’t know two of us were still there,” Church says. “They thought we had all high-tailed it and left. They were talking pretty loud down in the tree line, and we just opened up on them and took care of that.”
Ten minutes later, the Humvee returned. As they drove away, a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the disabled truck, where they had been taking shelter.
The ambush had decimated the convoy. Two soldiers and seven civilian drivers died during the fight. Pfc. Matt Maupin and KBR driver Thomas Hamill had been captured.
Hamill escaped a month later from a remote farmhouse where he had been held. Maupin, Church’s friend, was executed several weeks after the ambush, and his remains were finally found in 2008.
The toll could have been much higher. Church is credited with saving the lives of five soldiers and four KBR drivers, one month into the first of his two Iraq tours.
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 Reserve / Silver Star
Born March 17, 1978, in St. Louis. Raised in Normal, Ill., now lives in Hillsborough, Mo.
Entered the Army in October 1999 as a military policeman. Deployed to Kuwait on Feb. 14, 2004, and then to Iraq in March 2004.
Deployed to Iraq for a second tour from October 2005 to the summer of 2006.
WHAT HE DID
Led an ambushed convoy to safety, then returned to the battle to rescue wounded colleagues.
WHY HE JOINED THE ARMY RESERVE
“I was just looking for direction. I was a bartender and I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor. My cousin was in the Gulf War, so it was in the family. I just got tired of the day-to-day stuff.”
Iraq / Baghdad