Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Fighting First Sergeant

I received a tentative date for my mobilization, but with my long experience in and out of the military, I believe that I will just wait for the orders to be published before I really believe it.

Tonight the President will speak on national television about his “New Way Forward”. Although it appears that he may use a troop increase to take control of Baghdad and Anbar province, none of it will work if the Iraqis don’t step up and take control of their own destiny. The sectarian violence must end; the militias must be tamed.

No matter what happens in the end, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have served, fought, sacrificed and bled for Operation Iraqi Freedom can look back on their service with pride.

Here is another story of an extraordinary American:

Special to the Orlando Sentinel
February 5, 2006

The concussion from the enemy rocket-propelled grenade explosion threw First Sgt. Jose Berrios to the ground. He was stunned and could not hear anything at first. Then, as his senses slowly returned, he heard the horrible sound of screaming.

This was the scene in central Baghdad in the summer of 2004 as elements of the new Iraqi Army, led by a team of Orlando Army Reservists, engaged in a bloody neighborhood by neighborhood battle with insurgents. Once again, a major action was under way that could not succeed without the unsung heroism of our citizen-soldiers.

Trying to see what was happening, Berrios realized that something was holding him down. He was surprised to discover that he was under the remains of a dead Iraqi soldier. Pushing the body away, he rose to a hellish world of death and destruction. Several Iraqi soldiers were dead and both Iraqis and Americans were wounded. The uninjured Americans and Iraqis were dragging the wounded to safety.

Razor-sharp pieces of steel shrapnel from the rocket-propelled grenade had opened a severe gash to his left leg that would eventually require more than 40 stitches to close. Still, Berrios pitched in to get the wounded soldiers to safety even as the battle continued. With communications destroyed by the attack, the only way to call for help was by cell phone. Rescue and medical assistance had to wait because American forces were involved in saving the crew of a downed helicopter only a block away.

Berrios and the other soldiers continued the firefight with insurgents. It was almost an hour before American Bradley Fighting Vehicles could make their way to the besieged position to escort the wounded to safety. Treated in Iraq for his wounds, Berrios recovered and returned to his team to complete his tour of duty.

When the call came early in 2004 for volunteers to join a Coalition Military Advisory Training Team (CMATT) in Iraq, Berrios stepped forward. As an Orange County consumer-fraud investigator and the father of five children, he had plenty of reasons to stay home. Still, Berrios was a first sergeant in the Army Reserve and he believes in leading by example. Some of his men were going, so he would go with them.

New Iraqi soldiers must first complete their basic training. Then they are assigned to their individual battalions and the real training begins. The Americans guide them as they learn small-unit tactics and prepare to conduct real-world missions. Then the Americans accompany the Iraqis as they participate in combat operations.

As the sergeant in charge of CMATT Team 11, Berrios led his soldiers as they trained members of the 4th Brigade of the Iraqi Intervention Force of the new Iraqi Army. He believes strongly in the success of their mission. He also feels that the American advisors are making steady progress, even if that progress seems slow.

When asked how he felt about the Iraqis, Berrios said, “They are brave and willing to die for their country.” He was confident when he served with them and believes they will ultimately be able to hold their own against the insurgents. Since his return from Iraq, Berrios has served in the Army Reserve with the 3rd Battalion, 347th Regiment in Orlando.

All Americans must remember the sacrifices that have been made by the National Guardsmen and reservists like Berrios who work among us each day. The Army also considers Berrios one of its most valuable assets. After awarding him a Bronze Star for his service and a Purple Heart for his wounds, the Army has given him the ultimate vote of confidence in his leadership ability.

In December he was selected for promotion to command sergeant major, the highest rank an enlisted soldier can hold. He continues to serve his community and his nation. Average Americans must begin to recognize that their neighborhoods are filled with unsung heroes like Jose Berrios.

SFC Chuck Grist

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