Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus awarded three Marines and a corpsman with the nation's second and third highest awards for combat valor during a ceremony Dec. 3 aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. Sgt. William B. Soutra was awarded the Navy Cross, and Maj. James T. Rose, Staff Sgt. Frankie J. Shinost and Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick B. Quill were awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity against the enemy while engaged in combat missions in Helmand province, Afghanistan, nearly two years ago. (Marine Corps)
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Marine Sgt. William Soutra Jr., right, receives the Navy Cross from Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during a ceremony at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Dec. 3. Soutra was awarded the medal for his heroism while serving in Afghanistan. (Jae C. Hong / The Associated Press)
Marine special operators were low on ammunition and pushing through a dangerous section of Afghanistan's Helmand province when insurgents triggered an explosion that mortally wounded a staff sergeant and kicked off an ambush and a fierce, harrowing two-day battle with Taliban forces.
On Monday, the Navy Department's top civilian leader awarded some of the military's top valor awards to four members of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command who responded to that deadly July 11, 2010, attack in Nahr-e Saraj district. Recognized were Sgt. William Soutra, Maj. James Rose, Staff Sgt. Frankie Shinost and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Patrick Quill.
Soutra, a dog handler at the time, is just the second Marine in MARSOC's six-year history to receive the Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest combat award. Rose, Shinost and Quill received Silver Stars, giving MARSOC a total of 15.
The Marines and corpsman were deployed with 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion from Camp Pendleton, Calif. They worked together as part of Marine Special Operations Team 8123, Marine Special Operations Company B, according to award citations and detailed summaries of their actions released by MARSOC.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Antonik, who led one of the elements involved in the operation, died from wounds suffered in the explosion that set off the ambush. He was awarded a Bronze Star with V device posthumously for his actions in Nahr-e Saraj, a Marine official said. At least one other Marine, Staff Sgt. Bradley Harless, is expected to receive a Bronze Star with V for his heroism during the operation.
Rose, a captain at the time of the 2010 actions, has since been promoted to major, while Soutra became a full-fledged MARSOC critical skills operator last year after returning from Afghanistan, according to biographies released by the Corps.
Maj. Gen. Mark Clark, the MARSOC commander, hailed the "great heroism, extraordinary bravery and conspicuous gallantry" of the four men, each of whom held a unique role in the spec-ops team: Team leader, joint terminal attack controller, dog handler and corpsman. "They form a formidable team," Clark told a crowd of several hundred Marines, sailors and other military personnel who were joined by families and friends of the awardees. "Each had an important role that their teammates relied upon, and many times, their lives depended upon it."
They carried out a critical mission in a hotly contested area where the team faced extreme dangers. "They did it without hesitation, they did it for the mission, and for each other," he said.
Monday's awards ceremony was held on a misty morning outside 1st MSOB's headquarters overlooking the Pacific at Camp Pendleton. Clark and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus presented Soutra with the Navy Cross, and then pinned the Silver Star medals on Rose, Shinost and Quill.
For MARSOC, the award ceremony was unusually public. A half-dozen news organizations attended the event, and the identities of the four were not kept secret. Mabus explained to the crowd the importance of sharing the heroism and mission successes of MARSOC and the military's spec-ops community.
"The job of our special operations forces ... includes actions and events that most of us not a member of this community cannot even imagine," he said. "The missions are oftentimes classified, and while in some really rare cases their actions make the news, most of the time what they do, and their stories, are known only to each other and to their leadership and are never repeated in public."
Mabus spoke poignantly about the actions of the four and their teammates in that two-day fight. Despite the intense fighting, during which the team lost a team leader, he said, they "fulfilled the most sacred role: That of never leaving a Marine behind." He recognized and honored the family of Antonik, "who gave his last full measure of devotion for his service of his country."
The attack occurred during a mission known as Operation Highwaymen II. It involved MSOT 8123, commanded by Rose, and about 90 Afghan commandos. The force, along with seven interpreters, was inserted by helicopter and tasked with engaging insurgents who had been disrupting the construction of Route 611, a major road in northern Helmand that runs northeast to the landmark Kajaki Dam.
The region was in deep turmoil at the time. This mission was launched about a month before conventional Marine forces began taking over in Sangin, a violent district just to the north where nearly 40 Marines were killed by the end of 2010. A few months later, the Corps called in most of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, then serving as a theater reserve force aboard Navy ships, to help tame the Nahr-e Saraj area.
Team members weren't surprised by the ferocity of the fighting they encountered over those two days in that violent district: In running 19 different missions in the area, Rose said, "we had casualties in 18."
The Marines and Afghan commandos landed shortly after midnight July 10 with plans to clear multiple compounds, including an IED factory, a Taliban headquarters and at least three buildings where insurgent leaders slept. The main element was led by Antonik and included Soutra, Quill and about a platoon of commandos. They pushed through freshly irrigated fields to take over the IED factory and command-and-control center, uncovering rocket-propelled grenade launchers, rockets, 82mm mortars and pressure-plate IEDs, as well as radio repeaters and Taliban documents.
By daybreak, the Marines and commandos faced a sustained attack from more than 50 insurgents, according to the summaries of action. The insurgents were armed with command-detonated IEDs, sniper rifles, heavy Dishka machine guns and other weapons. As the fight wore on, Marines ran low on ammunition and water.
Soutra repeatedly braved enemy fire to ensure the commandos maintained discipline and eventually led a 10-man team of Afghans to assault a squad of Taliban fighters. He "initiated the counterattack by throwing grenades and engaging the enemy with his M4 [rifle], encouraging the commandos by example and through violence of action to make the final push into the enemy position," his summary states. Under Soutra's lead, the commandos overran the enemy position, killing four and pushing out the rest.
While Soutra led the counterattack, Quill set up on a rooftop. With his 7.62mm semi-automatic SR25 sniper rifle, he killed four armed insurgents, according to his summary of action.
About 5:30 p.m., a commando stepped on a pressure-plate IED, amputating one of his legs. Antonik and Quill moved under fire to help him, with the staff sergeant organizing security as the corpsman dressed the Afghan's bloody leg and administered morphine, military documents said. Quill called for a helicopter medical evacuation and, under fire, carried the commando on a blanket so he could be transported to the hospital, where he was eventually stabilized.
Quill's "crisis management skills and ability to perform under fire saved the commando's life and prevented further injuries in a complicated situation," his summary of action states.
Rose, the team leader, is credited with moving to a rooftop at daybreak during the operation to coordinate close-air support with an Apache gunship helicopter, even as rounds dinged off the building around him. At 9:49 a.m., he began calling for the casualty evacuation of a commando who had been wounded in the neck by an enemy sniper round, military documents said.
Various coalition aircraft were operating in the area. Rose coordinated bomb strikes from jets and 30mm gun runs from a British Apache helicopter.
"The combined arms effect allowed the casevac helicopter to land at the commando casualty position without endangering the helicopter crew or causing undue stress on the casualty," Rose's summary states. "The overwhelming suppression … quieted the enemy force and allowed the friendly elements to regroup and redistribute much needed ammunition."
After the commando stepped on the IED, Rose was the first to respond, placing a tourniquet on the Afghan's right leg. The captain halted his fellow Marines, and a post-blast analysis revealed that there was a daisy chain of additional IEDs nearby, military documents said.
Shinost, a joint terminal attack controller and former scout sniper team leader, is credited with leaving a covered position about daybreak under heavy small-arms and sniper fire to direct close-air support. He directed two 500-pound bomb drops on a nearby ridgeline, and then responded after observing other enemy fighters trying to regroup.
"Directing a flight of two F-15s, he controlled multiple gun runs with their 20mm rotary gun system, thus quieting the ridgeline and allowing his northernmost element to maneuver and reinforce their fighting positions," his summary states. "His efforts effectively quieted the enemy position, killing a confirmed eight fighters and wounding several others."
As the day wore on, insurgents made multiple attempts to retake the IED factory. The incessant skirmishes drained the Marines' supplies. That night, Antonik took a group to set up ambush positions and wait for an air drop containing badly needed ammo, water and medical gear. When it arrived, the bundles fell into a canal. Everything was lost.
Soutra volunteered to take men to another platoon's location to grab ammo and medical supplies, coming back with about 25 percent of what was needed, his summary states. As the sun came up, Antonik got a bad vibe about their position and decided to move. The IED got him around 6:40 a.m. as he led his men across a field. It caused a massive wound that stretched from his left knee to his ribcage and another deep cut on his right arm, the documents show. An Afghan commando was killed instantly in the blast. Another was badly wounded.
Antonik radioed for help.
Some 150 meters away, Soutra and Quill were pinned down by machine gun and mortar fire. As enemy fire swept in from two directions, the Afghan commandos became disoriented, so they dropped to the ground and began spraying rounds in all directions.
Soutra "boldly took charge," his summary states.
Soutra "knew his role the moment Staff Sgt. Antonik was hit. As the assistant element leader, he stepped forward to lead," said Mabus, calling him "an extremely gifted combat leader" and adding "his willingness to take charge was an inspiration to those serving with him."
Soutra, who had joined the team just several months before it deployed from Camp Pendleton to Afghanistan, didn't hesitate and "performed flawlessly," Rose said.
Using hand signals, he instructed the Afghans to focus their fire on a trench to their south. Then he and Quill dashed through the hail of enemy rounds to find Antonik and the Afghan casualties.
Rose, positioned in a nearby compound, heard the nightmare unfolding. He put Soutra in command of the team's main element and the quickly deteriorating situation in the kill zone, organized a quick-reaction force and set out to find and destroy the enemy position so a medical evacuation helicopter could land.
When Quill reached Antonik, he dropped to the ground and shielded him from the enemy fire and worked frantically to stop the bleeding, patting the staff sergeant's face to keep him conscious and calmly reassuring him. Soutra tended to the wounded Afghan by applying tourniquets, a move that saved the man from bleeding out, doctors later confirmed. Soutra's dog, Posha, meanwhile, remained calmly by his side, attached to a short leash.
Rose led Shinost and the QRF into a knee-deep canal and charged at the insurgents. As the captain fired his M4, the JTAC coordinated with nearby aircraft. Enemy fire ceased briefly, allowing Soutra enough time to carry the commando to a ditch about 75 meters away. Quill managed to drag Antonik there, the documents show.
Insurgents shifted focus to the QRF, whose members were trying to put enough distance between them and the enemy that circling A-10 Thunderbolts could open up. Six men closed in on Rose, moving within 50 meters, his summary states. A bullet tore through his weapon sling. The captain killed two insurgents and wounded a third, causing the others to take cover.
As Soutra fired on the enemy he relayed information to Shinost, who called in the A-10s. By 7:50 a.m., more than an hour after Antonik was hit, the ambush had begun to taper off. The Medevac helicopter came in, drawing a majority of the remaining enemy fire. Soutra and Quill helped move the casualties to the aircraft. The corpsman climbed on board the UH-60 Blackhawk and joined pararescue personnel in administering CPR on Antonik, who had stopped breathing.
"He was the juniormost team member," Quill's summary states, "but his actions were on par with those of a seasoned combat veteran. … Quill never gave up his fight to save a fellow Marine."
As the bird lifted off, Soutra regrouped the Afghan commandos and moved them to a nearby compound. Then, in what officials describe as a "final measure of leadership," the sergeant went back into the spot where Antonik had been hit and gathered all the gear that had been strewn about.
He radioed his position to Rose. Everything — and everyone — was accounted for.
The award ceremony was bittersweet for the team, and the rest of Bravo Company and 1st MSOB, as they gathered to honor the heroics in a day where their thoughts also were on their fallen friends.
"I would give it all back if he was here today," Rose said of Antonik. They would have been fine without the ceremony, public recognition and accolades from senior leaders, but they said they appreciate the honors and recognition for all that 1st MSOB and MARSOC have done and continue to do.
Still, Antonik, said Quill, "would have thought it was all pretty silly, to be honest."
Quill said he lost a close friend in Antonik, whom he called "the only Marine that I wanted to emulate. He was a mentor, he was a friend, and he was a true leader."
The heavy battle that day "was a day that I'll never forget," said a melancholy Soutra, 27, of Worcester, Mass. It fueled his desire to become a full-fledged operator, and he became a critical skills operator after his combat tour. "I thought, maybe it'll be good to try to fill Chris Antonik's shoes," he said.
Soutra's thoughts went to the fallen men and the memory of Posha, the close companion who was his brother-in-arms through more than four years working together and a previous combat tour in Iraq. "He helped me through that whole deployment, watching my back," he said.
Posha later was diagnosed with cancer, he said, and the dog was put down. "He was a very good friend, a great companion."
Staff writer email@example.com?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">Gidget Fuentes contributed to this report.