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Staff sgt. earns Silver Star; 6 comrades also honored for heroism

Jan. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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With machine gun fire raining around him, Staff Sgt. Michael Pate left the meager cover of an irrigation berm to run 50 yards toward the enemy and treat a critically wounded Navy SEAL while his other teammates fired back.

For his actions that day, Pate, a 30-year-old special operations combat medic from Austin, Texas, has received the Silver Star, the military’s third highest valor award.

He was one of seven soldiers with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion presented with valor awards in a Thursday ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C. Their heroics spanned four battles with enemy fighters in Afghanistan in 2012.

Three men, in addition to Pate, were honored for actions on Nov. 1, when troops were ambushed during a reconnaissance patrol in the village of Sardar Kala, in Zabul province.

While the other members of the patrol were pinned down and returning fire, Pate and his team leader, Capt. Jacob Allen, left their position to drag a critically wounded comrade behind a short berm.

The injured service member was Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Kantor, a Navy SEAL serving as the patrol’s heavy weapons gunner. Kantor was credited with braving machine gun fire to return suppressive fire, which allowed his teammates enough time to find cover.

Kantor, 22, of Naval Special Warfare Group Two, did not survive the battle. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Commendation Medal, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device.

Braving bullets, Pate treated Kantor and returned fire for ten minutes, according to the Army’s account.

Allen, meanwhile, fired Kantor’s heavy weapon until it jammed then began firing with his own rifle. He remained exposed until he could direct other soldiers to the enemy’s location. Two enemy fighters were quickly killed.

Sgt. First Class Kevin Oakes, as part of the patrol’s rear element, provided a base of fire that allowed Pate and Allen to prepare Kantor for medical evacuation.

Oakes and Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Hargrove meanwhile were on a flanking element fire away from Kantor, Pate and Allen.

Hargrove led his team through stream beds, braving machine-gun fire to outflank enemy fighters and drive them from their fortified positions.

Oakes, 36, of Belgrade, Mont., and Sgt. 1st Class Kevin L. Hargrove, 31, of Mount Holly, N.J., each received the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device. Allen, 32, of Williamsburg, Va., received the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device.

The three men and Pate comprised the civil affairs team on the 31-man recon patrol. Pate accepted his award with mixed emotions.

“To have an entire civil affairs team receive valor awards for one [battle] is unprecedented, and its a humbling thing because the backgrounds of these senior non-commissioned officers is amazing. I respect all of them,” Pate said. “It’s bittersweet and obviously not worth the sacrifice others made.”

For heroism in other battles, Staff Sgt. Philip Aubrey, received the Bronze Star Medal with “V” and two other soldiers with the battalion received the Army Commendation Medal with “V.”

■ On Nov. 5, 2012, Aubrey was lead medic in a 13-man element that came under machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire while on a reconnaissance patrol. Aubrey dodged enemy fire to get to a critically wounded casualty and treated him until he was safely aboard a medevac chopper.

■ On Sept. 27, 2012, First Sgt. Jamie Mullinax left cover to call out enemy positions when his patrol came under attack. He also sprinted 20 yards through enemy fire to shoot back at four enemy fighting positions.

■ On April 26, 2012, Sgt. First Class Donovan Johnson braved enemy fire to find and radio in enemy positions after his reconnaissance patrol was ambushed outside a village. His actions secured close air support and ended the ambush.

Aubrey, 32, of Santa Fe, N.M., and Mullinax, 43, of Catawba County, N.C., are with Civil Affairs Team 611. Johnson, 28, of Crossnore, N.C., is with Civil Affairs Team 613.

The role of civil affairs is seeing an expanded importance as the Army shifts focus beyond Afghanistan to engagements with foreign militaries.

“One deployment we’re working out of suits and ties out of embassies, and we don’t wear uniforms, and the next we’re in Afghanistan doing stuff like this,” Pate said. “I’ve been nothing but impressed with the caliber of this organization.”

A bond of brotherhood exists between special and conventional forces who have experienced combat together, Pate said. In his patrol, there had been civil affairs soldiers working alongside Navy SEALS and explosives experts, as well as conventional soldiers.

“This is a testament to the military and its diversity, that we come from different backgrounds, get thrown into missions where we have to work together and pull through,” he said. “We relied heavily on each other.”

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