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Courage Under Fire

The story of Major James Gant.

12:00 AM, Jun 14, 2007 • By RICHARD S. LOWRY
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Gant.pngMajor James Gant and his interpreter and friend, Mack,
in front of SPARTAN 6's up-armored Humvee.

MAJOR JAMES GANT remembers his latest brush with death like it was yesterday. He will remember December 11, 2006, for the rest of his life. That's the day he earned one of the Army's highest honors, a Silver Star.

Major Gant is the chief of the Iraqi National Police Quick Reaction Force Battalion Transition Team. On December 11th, after six weeks of fighting insurgents he and his team were returning home to Baghdad along the road to Balad. Major Gant and his small American advisory team were riding in three up-armored Humvees. These were not the Humvees of Jessica Lynch's era. These were mini-tanks on tires with bullet proof-glass, blast-proof armor plate, and turret mounted machineguns. The Iraqi National Police were riding in 23 soft-skinned trucks.

The insurgents (anti-Coalition forces as they are now called) wanted to bloody the unit's nose one last time, so they planned an elaborate running ambush in which they hoped to destroy the unit that had been their nemesis for more than a month. This was no ragtag bunch of thugs. They were well armed and well organized. They were a formidable enemy. "They were full-up al Qaeda," said Gant, and they had prepared three separate ambush sites along a four kilometer stretch of road, just north of Taji.

Gant was leading the convoy south when machinegun fire erupted from a dense palm grove on the west side of the road. Gant's gunner, Captain James Kim, returned fire, and the convoy of more than two dozen vehicles raced past the first enemy emplacement. During this short encounter, one of the Iraqi commandos had been shot in the face.

Gant immediately stopped the convoy and raced to the aid of his fallen comrade. The Iraqi was gravely wounded, so Gant radioed for an immediate evacuation, then ordered his men to clear a landing zone as he administered combat first aid. Gant cleared the man's airway, saving his life. By now, the enemy was closing in and a close quarters fight ensued to secure the landing zone and a defensive perimeter.

Soon, a Black Hawk helicopter swooped in and the wounded Iraqi was quickly loaded aboard the airborne ambulance. "You have about two minutes before we start receiving mortar fire," Gant told the flight medic. No sooner had the helicopter lifted into the sky, than mortar rounds began to fall among Gant and his men in the LZ.

Gant immediately turned his attention from the wounded Iraqi to the fight at hand. He opened fire on an enemy machine gun position with his M4, dropping an Iraqi insurgent in his tracks. Captain Kim mowed down five more of the charging enemy. Gant's priority now was to get his men away from the enemy's established positions. He ordered his men to remount their vehicles. The convoy continued to take fire from both sides of the road as they started to move south. There was so much fire that two of his men were pinned down.

Gant ordered his driver, Sergeant Bob "Doc" Minor, to peel off and return to the hot zone at the tail of the convoy. As they rolled up, Gant's gunner sprayed the enemy with machinegun fire while his driver positioned their vehicle between the enemy and the soft-skinned Iraqi trucks. This gave the remaining commandos the opportunity to mount up and drive away from the hail of gunfire.

Once the entire convoy was moving south, Gant raced back to the head of his unit. Just ahead was a built-up area and he knew that in an urban environment the danger would be much greater, as there would be myriad places for the enemy to hide. The threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) would increase, so would the threat of Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) attack. And Gant was not disappointed. In the road ahead, Gant's second-in-charge, Captain Paulo Shakarian, noticed an IED planted in the median. He immediately reported his discovery to Gant.

The insurgents had planted the device hoping that the explosion would force the embattled convoy to stop in a prepared kill zone. There was no way that Gant would force his men to stop in their soft-skinned vehicles, so he made a command decision in the blink of an eye. Gant ordered Captain Kim to get down out of the turret and Sergeant Minor to drive straight for the IED. Minor obeyed without hesitation and as they rolled within twenty feet, the device detonated. Miraculously, Gant's Humvee was unscathed.

The enemy was hell-bent on destroying Gant's elite unit. They unleashed a heavy mortar attack from both sides of the road. Gant kept the column moving through a vicious close-range gun battle. Then a second IED was spotted only five hundred yards ahead.