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01-10-06, 12:51 PM
'The finest caliber'

By John Hoellwarth
Times staff writer

Two company commanders with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, received the Silver Star last month for their actions in Iraq in April 2004.

Capt. Christopher Bronzi, who commanded the battalion's Golf Company, and Maj. Robert Weiler, then a captain commanding Weapons Company, received the awards Dec. 13 for their actions on what 2/4's Marines call "the sixth."

The Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based battalion had been in Ramadi for one month when, according to several members of the battalion, the city broke loose. Leathernecks said it seemed like everyone in the city was out to get them, and many considered it some of the most intense close combat since Vietnam.

In a series of what are believed to be coordinated ambushes, hundreds of Iraqis began squeezing rounds from behind windows, down alleys and in the middle of the street. Staff Sgt. Damien Rodriguez, a 27-year-old infantry unit leader from Menifee, Calif., was pinned down in a small building for more than two hours. He calls it "the Battle of Easy Street."

"When this was taking place, two hours into it, everyone and their mother was shooting at us," Rodriguez said.

Nine Marines were killed on April 6 alone. Others would die in the fierce fighting that continued almost unabated in the days that followed. In the end, more than 250 Iraqis were dead and the enemy offensive had ground to a halt.

It was on April 6 that Bronzi's Golf Company came under what his award citation calls "heavy fighting."

Isolated and outnumbered, Bronzi exposed himself to small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire to fight the enemy, "personally destroying several enemy fighting positions," the Poughquag, N.Y., native's citation reads.

"He would be in the middle of the street directing fire. He would do it because he knew it would motivate his Marines," Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Keith Grimes, Golf Company's senior medical specialist during the fight, said in a Dec. 15 Corps release.

In the midst of the battle, one of Bronzi's Marines was killed and lay dead in the street. Bronzi formed a fire team around himself and led the Marines into the fire-swept street to recover the fallen Marine.

"He then carried the Marine's body to safety, ensuring that no Marine in his charge would fall into the hands of the enemy," his citation said.

"I can't tell you how many heroics there were at that time. Our men were so relentless and tenacious, the enemy didn't stand a chance," Bronzi said in the release.

The fight continued through April 7, when Bronzi found himself and a squad of Marines surrounded by enemy forces. He led his Marines to the cover of a nearby building.

"Realizing the gravity of the situation," his citation said, "Bronzi moved to the roof and while under heavy enemy fire coordinated a linkup of the platoons over the radio."

According to the release, the call to rescue an isolated and surrounded squad reached Weiler at Weapons Company.

Weiler gathered his forces and led elements of his company against the enemy forces besieging the squad.

As his Marines moved north in a convoy along Ramadi's Route Nova toward the embattled squad, Weiler's column came under sudden and ferocious attack. He left the safety of his vehicle and exposed himself to enemy fire while directing his forces, beating back the attack.

After traveling only another few kilometers, his convoy was targeted by another enemy attack. Again, the Woodbridge, Va., native showed little regard for his own safety amid the "heavy enemy fire," personally leading a counterattack that "decimated" the enemy force that stood between him and the isolated squad, according to his citation.

"His heroic actions and leadership ensured the relief of the embattled squad and the destruction of the besieging enemy," his citation said.

The following day, Weiler led a similar mission to reinforce a unit caught in a firefight with enemy forces. As he moved northeast along Ramadi's Route Apple, he suddenly became the target of another enemy ambush. Heavy machine-gun fire and RPGs swept the area, slamming the area around the Marines. It was the beginning of a fight that would rage for three hours.

As he had done twice the day before, Weiler exposed himself to the enemy fire while directing his Marines. Throughout the fight, he "personally led squads as they assaulted enemy positions," according to the citation.

"You could see [Weiler] by his vehicle giving directions while bullets were flying by his head," said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Michael Rakebrandt, senior corpsman for Weapons Company during the fight. "He never broke a sweat or flinched."

During the awards ceremony, Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, 1st Marine Division commanding general, pinned Silver Stars on Bronzi and Weiler, extolling their heroism to the Marines in formation, according to the Corps release.

When given the opportunity to address the assembly, Weiler shifted his praise onto the Marines who were with him in the fight.

"I'm wearing this medal because of the performance of this battalion," he said.

While both Weiler and Bronzi remain humble about receiving the nation's third-highest award for valor, both of the corpsmen who served with them re-enlisted just so they could continue serving with their officers, according to the release.

The release said both corpsmen characterized their commanders as extremely dedicated, forgoing sleep to monitor radio traffic in case a battle erupted.

"[Weiler and Bronzi are] the finest caliber of Marine Corps officers I've ever came across," Grimes said. "If [Bronzi] said 'Let's go to war right now,' I'd go. I'd follow the man into the gates of hell ... best officer I've ever worked for."

On Oct. 6, Marine Commandant Gen. Mike Hagee recognized Bronzi's leadership of Golf Company with the Leftwich Trophy, which bears the name of Vietnam Navy Cross recipient Lt. Col. William G. Leftwich and is awarded only to captains who distinguish themselves while serving as company commanders.

Both officers are slated to rotate out of 2/4 early this year, bringing to their new commands the "bold leadership, wise judgment and complete dedication to duty" highlighted by their citations.