On May 5, 2018, a Marine was serving as an 81 mm mortar section leader with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, at an observation outpost in northeast Syria when his section came under a complex attack by Islamic State fighters.
Manning a heavy machine gun, Staff Sgt. John Williams engaged with ISIS dismounted and mounted forces approaching his section’s position as mortar and automatic fire targeted him.
Williams communicated to his section the locations of other ISIS fighters as he continued to lay down fire against the approaching forces.
In the midst of battle, Williams’ vehicle was struck by an anti-tank guided missile, which took out the tire and wounded the driver and others close to the vehicle.
Williams, suffering a concussion, climbed out of the vehicle and administered multiple tourniquets to both of the driver’s legs and then carried him to a casualty collection point.
The mortar section leader returned to the vehicle to gather sensitive items, when a second enemy missile struck just 50 meters from his position. Williams withdrew his section while under fire as air support provided cover.
For his heroic feat, Williams was awarded the Bronze Star with "V" device for valor at a ceremony in March held at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California. The details of his actions were laid out in an award citation obtained by Marine Corps Times.
First Lt. Cameron Edinburgh, spokesman with the 1st Marine Division, confirmed that the enemy forces were ISIS fighters. U.S. forces are in the region to advise partner forces fighting ISIS, but there are a number of militias and proxy forces operating in the region.
Williams’ award for combat valor in Syria is a reminder of the inherent dangers of advising missions in the war-torn region, but also the threat posed to coalition forces in the region by advanced anti-tank weaponry floating around the battlefield.
Syria is awash with a number of anti-tank guided missile systems, which include Chinese Red Arrows, Russian 9M133 Kornets, American BGM 71 TOWs, an Iranian imitation known as the Toophan, among other systems.
Many of these systems flooded the battlefield in the early days of the Syrian civil war, as insurgent and rebel groups battled an armored and tank heavy Syrian force.
Vetted groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad were supplied U.S. TOW systems to take on Syrian tanks. The CIA run program eventually was canceled by President Donald Trump in 2017, following concerns some of the weapons were ending up in the hands of groups tied to al-Qaida, according to The New York Times.
The chaos of Syria’s bloody conflict continues to rage today, even as coalition and Kurdish allies have captured the last remaining ISIS enclaves.
But, the proliferation of a number of anti-tank systems remains a major threat to coalition forces in the region.
According to the Wall Street Journal, while anti-tank guided missile systems, or ATGMs, were developed more than a decade ago, the systems have seen some upgrades that have pushed coalition forces operating in the Middle East to find quick solutions to counter the armor wrecking systems.
“The modern ATGM can penetrate 1,000 millimeters or more of cold-rolled steel plate,” John Gordon, an analyst with Rand told the Journal. “These things are now in the hands of groups like ISIS, the Taliban and Hezbollah, and increasing numbers of nonstate military forces.”
In January, Marine Forces Central Command, or MARCENT, told Marine Corps Times it had approved a total of three Bronze Stars. Williams’ award was approved on February 4, making his award at least the fourth such award out of MARCENT.
In December 2018, MARCENT told Marine Corps Times it had approved 47 Purple Hearts since 2016 for Operation Inherent Resolve, or OIR.
The sole Silver Star awarded to a Marine in support of OIR was earned by a Marine Raider for his actions at the outset of the campaign to liberate Mosul, Iraq, in 2016.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.