Three Years and Counting
Why is the Pentagon withholding Purple Hearts from deserving recipients?
Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By JIM LACEY
I HAD JUST SETTLED DOWN to go to sleep when two thunderous explosions shattered the desert stillness. The blasts were still echoing when a young soldier at the back of my tent started shouting in pain. While other soldiers began tending their wounded comrade, I made my way outside. SCUD alert warnings were already going off--this was March 23, 2003, just days before the start of the Iraq war.
For a long moment I assumed that our camp in Kuwait had been hit by one or more missiles. But as I took in the chaos, the reality of the situation slowly sank in. It was not a missile strike, but a terrorist attack that targeted the leadership of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. Much later in that long night, I learned that the terrorist was an American soldier named Sgt. Hasan Akbar.
Akbar, a radical Islamist who had attended a Saudi-financed mosque in South-Central Los Angeles, had thrown two grenades among sleeping soldiers, then opened fire with his rifle, killing Major Gregory Stone and Captain Christopher Seifert, and wounding 14 other soldiers. Among the wounded in the attack were the brigade commander and his executive officer. The brigade commander returned to duty later the next morning, and led his troops into Iraq three days later despite painful shrapnel wounds. His executive officer, whom Akbar shot when he left his tent to assist others, had to be evacuated and has since undergone multiple surgeries.
I really don't think too much about that night anymore, but when I do it's usually because I've heard from one of the soldiers involved or from a family member. While the soldiers never mention it, the family members almost always bring up one point: Is there anything that can be done to get the soldiers killed and wounded that night their Purple Heart medals?
The Purple Heart, which is awarded to a service member killed or wounded as a result of enemy or terrorist action, has never been presented to those killed and wounded that night. They have, so far, been denied this simple but important display of respect our nation gives to those who have sacrificed so much in its service.
Three years after the attack, the wounded soldiers and family members of the deceased are being denied this seemingly small, but emotionally important symbol by a military bureaucracy that cannot see past definitions. The Pentagon claims that Akbar--who was convicted of murder in a military trial last April and now awaits execution at Fort Leavenworth--was just a criminal and not an enemy. During Akbar's trial, I could understand that calling him a terrorist would probably unnecessarily complicate the prosecution. When the trial ended, though, I and many family members assumed the awards would be forthcoming. But when I inquired further, I was told that the incident was not deemed a terrorist attack and therefore the Purple Hearts could not be awarded.
Was Sgt. Hasan Akbar a terrorist? Judge for yourself. In a diary entry Akbar made five years before he actually struck, he wrote, "My life will not be complete unless America is destroyed." In another entry a month before shipping out to Iraq, he wrote, "I will have to decide to kill my Muslim brothers fighting for Saddam Hussein or my battle buddies." By any reasonable definition these are the words of a terrorist. He was just waiting for the opportune time to strike, and he found it in Kuwait on the eve of war.
The soldiers attacked by Hasan Akbar deserve to have that award signifying America's appreciation for their sacrifice and their loss. So do those like Major Stone's two sons and his sister, Tammy Hall, who wrote to ask me "for anything you know about my brother, if you ever talked to him or just anything at all. Please put yourself in my shoes, I just want to know his last words, did you visit him in the hospital tent? Did he have any last words?"
I answered her, in part, that I had spoken to her brother a few times while we were in Kuwait. He was an Air Force officer attached to an Army brigade, and I was there as an embedded journalist. I suppose we talked to each other because we were both strangers to the other soldiers in the unit. From what I remember, we talked about some technical stuff and how a war with Iraq would be fought. When he did talk about personal things it was usually about his sons, and it was apparent that they were his biggest concern and what he missed most about being away. He was a naturally easy-going guy, because he soon had a number of new friends in the brigade and was spending a lot of time on his official duties. So, I talked to him less as the war got closer.
On the night of the grenade attack, Stone's tent was directly beside mine. Everyone assumed, at first, that terrorists had attacked from outside the camp and that they were still in the area. The fact that Akbar shot two soldiers as they exited their tents reinforced this impression and convinced us all that there was still considerable danger. Disregarding that danger dozens of soldiers rushed to help those injured.
Despite the risk, one young medic ran several hundred yards in the pitch black to get his medical bag from a vehicle packed for the invasion and raced back with it. Others immediately entered the tents and began taking out the wounded. A major went to the operations tent, ordered medical evacuation helicopters, and alerted the nearby hospital trauma center. I was never sure of the exact timing, but I doubt more than 15 minutes passed between the attack and when helicopters arrived to rush the injured away. The efforts made by the soldiers, doctors, and surgeons that night were truly heroic. There was nothing more that could have been done to save the lives lost.
Before undertaking my duties as a journalist that night, I did help carry out some of the wounded, including Major Stone. He may not have known how badly wounded he was, because he began to push the medics away, and though I could not hear what he was saying, I could hear the medics reply: "No, sir we have to take care of you" and "Everyone is being taken care of. Let us work on you." It was clear he was trying to get the medics to go help the other wounded men.
I wrote to Tammy Hall that I had spoken to family members of others that were seriously injured that night. All of them seemed to be truly bothered by the fact that it was another soldier who did this, and many said that it would have been easier to understand if it was a terrorist attack. But I told her then, and I believe the trial of Akbar amply showed, that the man who killed her brother was not a soldier; he was, in fact, a terrorist.
Three years is a long time to wait. Two soldiers were killed and 14 wounded by a terrorist when they went, at the behest of their country and without reservation, too fight a war in a foreign land. Is it to much to ask of the U.S. military that these men and their wounded comrades from that night finally be awarded the Purple Heart?
Jim Lacey covered the Iraq war as a correspondent for Time magazine.