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06-12-06, 05:35 AM
War Among the Rocks

Battlefield Standout Earns Navy Cross

Story and photo by GySgt Keith A. Milks

On the crisp, sunny morning of Feb. 24, 2006, Staff Sergeant Anthony L. Viggiani stood at rigid attention on the parade deck at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. Behind him stood hundreds of newly minted Marines from “Golf” and “Papa” companies. In front of Viggiani, Brigadier General Richard T. Tryon and Sergeant Major Robert C. Hollings approached with a red folder and small blue box embossed with the words “United States of America.”

Over the course of the next several minutes, a narrator described events that occurred nearly 20 months earlier. Thousands of miles away Viggiani, then a sergeant with Co C, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Bn, Sixth Marine Regiment, earned the nation’s second highest award for battlefield valor—the Navy Cross.

In late spring 2004, Viggiani and his fellow Marines in BLT 1/6 deployed to Afghanistan as the ground combat element of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). The unit commenced combat operations in April and by late May had completed five named combat operations. On June 1 Charlie Co and other elements of BLT 1/6 launched Operation Asbury Park, a push deep into a longtime Taliban stronghold centered around the town of Dey Chopan.

Prior to Asbury Park, Charlie Co had seen little in the way of combat as it prowled the deserts, mountains and villages of Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province, rooting out remnants of the brutal Taliban regime. While Charlie Co uncovered substantial caches of arms, ammunition and ordnance, it met no armed resistance during its efforts.

That all changed on June 2. When the Marines approached the village of Siah Chub Kalay, they were ambushed by anticoalition militia (ACM) forces who sprayed their convoy with rifle, machine-gun and rocket-propelled-grenade fire. After an intense, seven-hour battle that included close air strikes by attack jets and helicopters, Viggiani and his fellow Marines and sailors bedded down that night as combat veterans.

“We’ve been here so long, we figured it was never going to happen,” said SSgt Christian Boles, the stocky, powerfully built platoon sergeant for 2d Plt, speaking that night of his platoon’s combat baptism. “Our junior NCOs [noncommissioned officers] really were the heroes of the day. They did everything they were supposed to do, were aggressive and carried the fight to the enemy.”

Boles had little idea how prophetic his words would be.

The next day, the Marines pushed further toward Dey Chopan and descended upon the village of Khabargho. With allied Afghan Militia Forces and the battalion’s Combined Antiarmor Team (CAAT) providing overwatch, Charlie Co’s 2d and 3d platoons dismounted southwest of the village and began a systematic search of the village.

Around 7:15 a.m. midway through their sector of Khabargho, Marines of 2d Plt, call sign “Cold Steel 2,” spotted a group of approximately 15 heavily armed men fleeing the village into the surrounding mountains. Abandoning their search of the village, First Lieutenant Thomas P. Crossen and SSgt Boles immediately led their platoon in pursuit.

As the Marines closed on the fleeing enemy, they turned and unleashed a volley of rocket-propelled grenades and torrents of small-arms fire at the infantrymen. With one rifle squad and a machine-gun section providing overwatch, the squads led by Viggiani and Sergeant Ryan West of Lafayette, Ind., pressed forward in the attack, hugging the boulder-size rocks to avoid the continuing enemy fire.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s 3d Plt (“Cold Steel 3”) and company headquarters moved to the sounds of the guns. In all, nearly 80 Marines were closing rapidly on the ACM while Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters orbited dangerously overhead.

Among the fleeing ACM that day were no doubt veterans of the Russian war and vicious intra-Afghan conflicts. They must have realized that while they could escape the helicopters, evading the pursuing Marines would be a different matter altogether. Leaving behind five of their number to delay the Marine pursuit, the rest of the ACM, estimated to number between 10 and 15, scurried deeper into the mountains.

Despite their best efforts, the fleeing ACM force couldn’t escape the Marines. Having skillfully maneuvered into position to block the enemy’s retreat, a section of machine-gun and TOW antitank missile-equipped humvees opened up on the fleeing ACM, killing at least three while the Apaches swooped low to make repeated runs with their 30 mm cannon.

Back in the valley, the ACM delaying force settled into position to await the advancing Marines. They made the most of the steep-walled, narrow valley. Three set up shop on the eastern (right) side of the valley in a small cave. Another enemy fighter positioned himself on the hillside opposite and a bit farther north of the cave. A fifth fighter, armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, lay in wait alongside a small, trickling stream that cut through the valley floor.

By 10 a.m., about 90 minutes after the ACM force was first spotted, Viggiani and West’s rifle squads were maneuvering cautiously over the rough, rock-strewn terrain. Accompanying the squads were First Sergeant Ernest K. Hoopii and the company headquarter’s corpsman, Hospital Corpsman Second Class Jason Shevokas.

With West’s squad on the valley’s left slope and Viggiani’s moving down the valley’s center, the Marines continued to pick their way forward when the enemy entrenched in the cave opened fire against the Marines on the opposite (left) slope. Immediately going to ground, the Marines returned fire in the general direction from where the firing was coming, even though few actually had eyes on the enemy.

On the right slope were Hoopii, Viggiani and a few other Marines. Even though they were closest to the enemy-occupied cave, they had no idea where the enemy were dug in. Mindful of their comrades’ incoming fire from the opposite slope, they inched forward cautiously over and around the rocks.

The snapping of the Marines’ M16A4s and M249 squad automatic weapons, the heavier cracking of the ACM’s weapons and the distinctive ping of rounds ricocheting off the rocks echoed through the valley as the firefight increased in intensity. Adding to the din were the confused shouts of Marines spread along the left slope, searching for the source of enemy fire and others hollering what they thought were the answers.

After less than a minute, the cry of “Doc” resonated above the rest of the noise.

Behind a rock on the left slope lay Lance Corporal James Gould, one hand clasped tightly around his right calf and the other still holding his rifle.

“It felt like a sledgehammer,” the Tampa, Fla., native later recalled, describing the 7.62 mm round that punched straight through the fleshy part of his lower leg. “It didn’t really hurt that much at first … and the next thing I knew Corporal Wood was right there with me.”

Cpl Randy Wood, a lanky native of Cowpens, S.C., had watched in horror as Gould went down and unhesitatingly scrambled to the side of his Marine. Helping Gould find cover behind a larger rock, Wood immediately went to work, tearing away Gould’s trouser leg to expose the wound.

With two Marines trapped behind a single rock, the enemy fighters across the valley concentrated their fire on Wood and Gould’s position, slamming dozens of rounds at the pair. At some point, Wood was wounded by a ricocheting bullet that arched up from a rock and slashed across his cheek. He ignored the bloody, painful wound to continue working on Gould.

Across the valley, Viggiani and the others continued to move forward and eventually Viggiani found himself leading the advance. Suddenly, rounds began sparking off the rocks around the Marines on the right slope as the second pincer of the ambush opened fire.

“The rounds just started pouring in,” said Viggiani, who once served as a guard for the presidential compound at Camp David, “and we weren’t really sure where they were coming from.”

Under fire from the ACM across the valley, Viggiani made his way down the slope toward his fire teams. He happened to glance over and saw a break in the rocks. Acting on instinct, he leaned over the opening and saw a bit of fabric among the rocks below. With the sound of the enemy weapons louder than ever, Viggiani knew he’d found the enemy position. Sticking the barrel of his rifle into the opening, he cranked off three or four rounds, then paused. He fired again, but apparently to no avail since the ACM fire continued.

Realizing the solution lay with a grenade, but not having one, Viggiani sprinted across to where 1stSgt Hoopii and the other Marines had taken up firing positions to engage the two ACM fighters across and down the valley. Grabbing a grenade from one of the leathernecks, Viggiani, now a target of the enemy, retraced his steps and hovered over the cave opening.

Flipping the clip, pulling the pin and letting the spoon fly, Viggiani dropped the fragmentation grenade into the opening and flattened himself against a rock. Seconds later, the grenade exploded, and the smoke and dust billowing from the cave’s openings marked the end of the ACM position. Back across the valley, now that Viggiani had eradicated the threat against them, Hospitalman Brian Imber finally was able to reach Wood and Gould and began treating their wounds.

Meanwhile, Hoopii and the other Marines silenced the enemy gunman across the valley who had been peppering their slope with rifle fire and also wounded the fifth ACM fighter who never had a chance to let loose with his RPG.

Silence descended on the valley as the Marines scoured the area for more fighters. That was when some of the Marines noticed that Viggiani, who was helping organize the search, had a deep crimson stain on his left trouser leg.

“It stings a bit, but it’s nothing,” Viggiani said, shrugging off the deep furrow a bullet traced across his leg just above the boot. Apparently, the fourth ACM fighter had found his mark when Viggiani was busy eliminating the cave position.

Less than 10 minutes after the first shots were fired, Charlie Co was ready to move out. Sgt West’s squad was detailed to escort the wounded Gould and Wood back to the battalion command post and aid station. Because the terrain was too rough for a helicopter to land, the movement was by foot.

Gould, unable to support his own weight, was carried to the rear on the backs of 1stSgt Hoopii and Second Lieutenant Michael L. Keller, the company’s forward observer. As the pair alternated carrying the wounded Marine, the remainder of the party carried the wounded Marines’ gear, the weapons and equipment of the slain enemy fighters and escorted the badly wounded RPG gunner and two other suspected ACM members found near the fighting.

Viggiani, despite the best efforts of his fellow Marines, refused to leave his squad. When Charlie Co pushed deeper into the mountains, he went with them, nursing his wound with a field dressing and a few aspirin.

Viggiani would be with Charlie Co when they later uncovered two arms caches and when the unit’s forward air controller, Captain James B. “Beaver” Hunt, unleashed close air support against additional enemy forces.

In all, 14 enemy fighters were confirmed killed June 3 by the combined efforts of Charlie Co and CAAT and precision strikes by Marine AV-8B Harrier IIs, Army Apaches and an Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber that dropped two 2,000-pound bombs against an ACM cave complex. Despite the wide range of armaments and units that came together to eliminate the enemy force, it was Viggiani’s efforts that resonated from the day’s fighting.

“Everything is a team effort,” Viggiani said, describing the June 3, 2004, fight. “It is no one individual’s actions that win battles.”

Viggiani left Afghanistan thinking he’d been recommended for an award, but time passed, and he moved on to become a drill instructor at Parris Island. The issue slipped from his mind until he received word that he’d been awarded the Navy Cross.

Like others in his position, Viggiani is modest, even self-effacing, about his actions that summer day in Afghanistan.

“It is a great honor to be awarded the Navy Cross,” he said a week after the Parris Island ceremony, “but I did what any other Marine would have done in that situation.”

Since the war on terrorism began in the fall of 2001, seven leathernecks have earned the Navy Cross, and Viggiani is the only Marine to be so honored from the war in Afghanistan.

Even with all the attention he has been given and his combat meritorious promotion to staff sergeant, Viggiani believes the greatest honor he has received happened while he was deployed.

On Sept. 4, 2004, while the 22d MEU(SOC) was conducting its end-of-deployment wash down and agricultural inspections at Naval Support Activity Rota, Spain, BLT 1/6 held a “Warriors Night” to commemorate their service in Afghanistan.

The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Asad A. Khan, pulled one Marine who had distinguished himself in battle from each of his companies. For Charlie Co, that was Viggiani. After all this time, he still holds the response from his fellow combat veterans as his highest accolade.

“The greatest honor I’ve received was at our Warriors Night in Rota when I received a standing ovation from my peers.”

Editor’s note: GySgt Milks, the public affairs and combat camera chief for the 22d MEU(SOC) during the unit’s 2002, 2004 and 2005-06 deployments, participated in humanitarian efforts in the Horn of Africa and combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He currently is assigned to the Defense Information School, Ft. Meade, Md.