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28 Shining Stars

Since 9/11, 28 Army National Guard Soldiers have earned the Silver Star, the third highest medal for combat valor in the military. They’ll tell you that what they did wasn’t special, that they were just doing their job. But their commanders—and the Soldiers who are living today because of these heroic actions—would say otherwise. 

They were trained for this crisis—and born for this moment. When enemy gunfire sprayed around them, blasts shook their world and hope seemed fleeting, these warriors kept their wits and never gave up the fight. In the face of indescribable peril, they raced to wounded comrades and ignored injuries of their own. They entered a trench crawling with insurgents and came out standing. They shielded teammates from incoming rounds and led others to safety. They never thought twice about putting their comrades’ lives above their own. And a few of them did make that most profound sacrifice.

The extraordinary courage of these individuals can never be fully captured, but here’s a glimpse of what they did, gathered largely from information compiled by the National Guard Bureau. They’ve shown the world what the Guard is really made of.


1SG Gregory A. Fulton
951st Engineer Company (Sapper),
Wisconsin National Guard
Action: Aug. 10, 2009
Awarded: May 31, 2013

Fulton, a combat engineer, was called to assist the Afghan National Army in Pul-e-Alam, Afghanistan, with security in clearing a building that held insurgents. Fulton led a 12-man U.S.-Afghan assault team into the building, clearing each floor while encountering small arms fire and casualties as they closed in on the enemy. Displaying his ingenuity, Fulton and his team engineered an improvised explosive device taped to a stick that would breach a strongpoint the insurgents had on the fourth floor, neutralizing them until the structure was cleared, which may have saved the Soldiers' lives.

SFC Joshua D. Betten
3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group,
Florida National Guard
Action: March 5, 2004
Awarded: Dec. 3, 2004

Betten and Sergeant First Class Andrew Lewis left their firebase on the Afghanistan border for a two-man sniper/observation mission. During the night, about a mile away from the base, they were attacked by several Taliban forces. Betten shot three attackers, while Lewis eliminated one with a Claymore  mine and another with his pistol. Taking fire from two sides, they covered each other, one reloading as the other fired. Out of ammunition and under machine-gun attack, they slid 500 meters down a canyon cliff to cover. Rescuers credited them with saving their base from attack.

SGT Russell Collier
1st Battalion, 206th Field Artillery,
Arkansas National Guard
Action: Oct. 3, 2004
Awarded: October 2004

Collier was conducting traffic control points and security near Taji, Iraq, when his patrol came under small-arms fire. Collier accompanied the fire team as it went into a housing area, under direct fire, in pursuit of the shooter. When his squad leader was wounded, Collier handed his rifle to another Soldier in order to grab his aid bag and provide medical treatment. He suffered mortal wounds while attempting in vain to save the life of his comrade.

SSG Chad Malmberg
1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, 
Minnesota National Guard 
Action:  Jan. 27, 2007
Awarded:  Sept. 22, 2007

Malmberg remembers what he was thinking in the darkness as the ambush unfolded. At first, it was, “There’s a good chance I’m gonna die doing this,” but it eventually became, “If I don’t do whatever I’m gonna do, the consequences could be worse.” What he did proved pivotal. When the fighting was over, Malmberg and his 16-man platoon had defeated a force more than twice its size. “We competed and we won … we beat the enemy and none of us were hurt,” he says.

Malmberg, a member of Minnesota’s 34th Red Bull Infantry Division and now a first lieutenant, was commander of five gun trucks escorting a 20-truck night convoy from the Baghdad airport. A convoy in front of Malmberg’s was stopped by an improvised explosive device (IED), and his stalled team was soon attacked by at least 30 to 40 fighters positioned behind berms and in canals. Several times during the 50-minute firefight, Malmberg maneuvered his vehicle into heavy fire, dismounted and engaged the enemy directly, taking out one position with an anti-tank rocket  and neutralizing several insurgents at close range with a grenade, essentially shutting down the attack. Amazingly, only a few American Soldiers or Iraqi drivers suffered minor injuries in the attack.

Now Malmberg, an infantry unit executive officer and St. Paul, MN, police officer, says, “I read stuff that was written—even that I’ve written—and it doesn’t represent how ridiculously overwhelmed we were. I can’t believe that nobody was severely injured. It was a miracle. There were rounds flying everywhere. So many things could have gone wrong, and everything just went right. It was unbelievable.”             

SSG Michael McMullen
243rd Engineer Company, 
Maryland National Guard
Action: Dec. 24, 2005
Awarded: January 2006

McMullen was providing convoy  security near Ramadi, Iraq, when the vehicle of Sergeant Randal Divel was struck by an IED. A civilian firefighter and paramedic, McMullen responded quickly to save the life of his fellow Soldier. He moved Divel away from the burning vehicle, extinguished the flames on his body and protected him when a second IED went off nearby. McMullen suffered wounds that cost him his life.

SPC Jason Harrington
1st Battalion, 172nd Armor, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 
Pennsylvania National Guard
Action: Sept. 19, 2005
Awarded: Dec. 27, 2007

Following the deaths of three platoon members who had been struck by an IED, Harrington immediately volunteered to be part of a reaction force. Near the scene of the fatal explosion, Harrington’s Humvee was also struck by an IED. After confirming his crew was uninjured, Harrington began sweeping the area for possible triggermen. Then, a second blast destroyed the team’s other vehicle, injuring his platoon sergeant and further exposing the team to gunfire. Risking his own safety, Harrington used his personal radio in an open area to secure reinforcements before continuing to search for insurgents.

SPC Robert Shane Pugh
1st Battalion, 155th Infantry, 
Mississippi National Guard
Action: March 2, 2005
Awarded: Feb. 11, 2006

Pugh was part of an engineer platoon conducting combat patrol near Iskandariyah, Iraq, when an IED detonated. Both Pugh, a medic, and Sergeant First Class Ellis Martin were seriously wounded. Despite his injuries, Pugh instructed his team—primarily combat engineers—how to stabilize his severely wounded comrade until the medevac helicopter arrived. Pugh died on the way to the hospital, but his heroic efforts saved Martin. Pugh was posthumously promoted to sergeant.

SPC Gerrit Kobes
1st Battalion, 161st Infantry, 
Washington National Guard
Action: Nov. 2, 2004
Awarded: Feb. 9, 2005

Kobes was serving as medic in a 60-vehicle mission transporting Iraqi National Guard (ING) Soldiers to Fallujah when his convoy was ambushed. An RPG destroyed a lead vehicle, seriously injuring several ING members. With the convoy blocked and under heavy enemy fire, Kobes ran nearly 500 meters to the injured Iraqi Soldiers and began emergency treatment to stabilize their wounds. He faced additional exposure while loading the men for evacuation. His actions saved the lives of at least four Iraqi Soldiers.

1LT Tyler J. Jensen
19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), I Corps Artillery,
Utah National Guard
Action: Jan. 27, 2007
Awarded: June 19, 2008     

During a combat reconnaissance patrol with members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Uruzgan province, Jensen’s unit was ambushed by about 100 enemy forces. In the confusion, the Afghans in the patrol were cut off from nearly all their American counterparts, and the frightened Afghan officer in charge fled. Jensen stepped in, took over and led the patrol under enemy fire to rejoin the Americans. Then, when another U.S. Soldier took a small-arms round in the leg, Jensen repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to rescue his fellow Soldier.

SSG Timothy F. Nein
617th Military Police Company, 503rd Military Police Battalion, 
Kentucky National Guard
Action: March 20, 2005
Awarded: June 16, 2005

Nein’s three-vehicle patrol observed the ambush of a 30-truck convoy south of Baghdad, Iraq. Rushing to assist, Nein’s team was attacked by nearly 50 insurgents firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) from an orchard and deep irrigation trench. Positioning their vehicles to flank the insurgents and prevent escape, Nein directed an assault on the trench line. Despite facing heavy fire, Nein and Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester proceeded along the entire length of the line, throwing grenades and shooting several insurgents, saving the lives of convoy members and fellow Soldiers. Nein’s award was upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross in 2007.

SFC Chad M. Stephens
1st Battalion, 120th Infantry, 30th Infantry Brigade,
North Carolina National Guard
Action: June 24, 2004
Awarded: Oct. 22, 2006

Enemy forces were attempting to take control of Baqubah, Iraq, and Stephens’ Bradley platoon had already fought through two ambushes when they were called to assist another platoon under heavy attack. As they neared the area of the battle, an RPG struck one of the other vehicles in Stephens’ team, seriously wounding the gunner and several others. Due to the vehicle’s damage, the exposed gunner could be evacuated only through the hatch.

Without taking extra time to put on his body armor, Stephens sprinted 50 yards through heavy fire and climbed the vehicle, lowering the injured gunner to medics. With bullets still landing around him, he made it back to his vehicle. Shortly afterward, Stephens’ vehicle was also struck by an RPG. Despite being wounded, he continued fighting with his platoon into the next day. 

That event was nine years ago. Stephens retired in 2012, after serving 17 years in the military. Admittedly, he still misses the camaraderie—and a little of the action, too. “I do ask myself sometimes, ‘What was I thinking?’ But I think I’d do the same thing again, if I was in the same situation,” he says. Not surprisingly, he continues to work with Soldiers, as a Veterans service officer in Winton, NC. He may not be in the line of fire anymore, but he’s still taking care of his comrades.

SFC Andrew Lewis
3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group,
Florida National Guard
Action: March 5, 2004
Awarded: Dec. 3, 2004

Along the Afghanistan border, Lewis and Sergeant First Class Joshua Betten left their firebase for a two-man sniper/observation mission. During the night, they encountered several enemy fighters. Lewis took out one with a Claymore mine and another with his pistol, while Betten eliminated three more. Under fire from two sides, they were forced to cover each other. Lewis threw three grenades to thwart a direct attack. Their ammunition exhausted, they slid 500 meters down a canyon cliff to cover and eventual rescue. Their actions circumvented a deadly attack on their base.

SPC Jose Maldonado
130th Engineer Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division,
Puerto Rico National Guard
Action: June 14, 2007
Awarded: Sept. 7, 2007

Maldonado, now a staff sergeant, was serving as Humvee gunner during a route-clearing patrol in Baghdad, Iraq, when his turret took a direct hit by an RPG. He received severe wounds to his face, arms and left hand. Despite bleeding profusely, Maldonado stood up out of the damaged turret to engage attacking insurgents with his M16. A medic applying a tourniquet was forced to take cover, but Maldonado, again disregarding his own life-threatening injuries, stood and fired on advancing enemy forces until he was no longer able because of blood loss.

CPT Shannon D. Ison   
206th Engineer Battalion, 35th Infantry Division, 
Kentucky National Guard
Action: Aug. 16, 2008
Awarded: Feb. 10, 2013

Over the course of a seven-day route-clearing mission in Afghanistan, Ison’s engineer platoon had already engaged the enemy 19 times. “That whole seven days was a trial,” he says. But it wasn’t until the end of the week when the fighting really escalated. While returning to base from the mission, one of the Humvees in the convoy hit an IED and exploded. The ambush was on.

Despite taking fire on his side of the vehicle, Ison knew his unit needed help. Leaving the cover of his own truck, he pulled four wounded Soldiers from their burning vehicle. As enemy fire and RPGs landed around him, he continued administering medical aid while leading his platoon’s fire on enemy positions. “I guess that’s the way my brain’s wired,” Ison says.

No doubt, it is. As a civilian firefighter and EMT in Lexington, KY, he’s used to jumping into emergencies and saving lives. Recalling the moments before his dash through enemy fire to rescue his Soldiers, Ison notes, “My driver, Specialist Troy Justice, who was there with me, said, ‘I could see it in your eyes—I wasn’t gonna be able to talk you out of it.’ ” He adds, “I probably had tunnel vision at that point, just thinking about doing what I’ve gotta do.”

As for Ison’s wiring, serving is in his blood. His father was in the Army before becoming a Kentucky state trooper. Four uncles served in the military, and his brother-in-law is a twice-deployed sergeant major in the Kentucky National Guard. Now Ison, the Guard’s newest Silver Star recipient, has created his own enduring legacy.

LTC Michael E. McLaughlin
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division, 
Pennsylvania National Guard
Action: Jan. 5, 2006
Awarded: Sept. 7, 2007

Known for the trust he established with local leaders around Ramadi, Iraq, McLaughlin was speaking to a crowd of 300 civilians at a recruiting event for the Iraqi police force. A suicide bomber infiltrated the group and detonated explosives, killing a Marine and 80 Iraqis, and injuring dozens. McLaughlin was struck in the head by shrapnel, but when offered aid, he directed treatment to his fellow Soldiers, helping to save their lives. He died shortly after. McLaughlin is the highest-ranking Guard officer killed in Iraq.

SGT Leigh Ann Hester
617th Military Police Company, 503rd Military Police Battalion,
Kentucky National Guard
Action: March 20, 2005
Awarded: June 16, 2005

While shadowing a 30-truck convoy south of Baghdad, Hester’s three-vehicle patrol observed an ambush and rushed to defend against nearly 50 insurgents attacking from concealed positions in an orchard and deep irrigation trench. Positioning vehicles to flank the insurgents and prevent escape, Hester ordered suppressive fire as she and Staff Sergeant Timothy Nein counterattacked along the entire trench, eliminating several insurgents. Her actions saved the lives of many fellow Soldiers and Iraqi civilians. In earning the Silver Star, Hester became the first female U.S. Soldier to be honored for valor in close-quarters combat.

SPC Richard A. Ghent
1st Battalion, 172nd Armor, 
New Hampshire National Guard
Action: March 1, 2006
Awarded: Oct. 23, 2006

As a Humvee gunner near Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Ghent and his crew were manning an observation post when they were attacked with several grenades that killed the driver, severely wounded the vehicle commander and threw Ghent from the vehicle’s turret. With only his 9 mm pistol, Ghent charged the insurgents. He held the position, without cover (he took a round from an AK-47) and running out of ammunition, until reinforcement arrived. His actions prevented additional attacks against the rest of his platoon.

CPT Tom Bozzay
2nd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group,
Illinois National Guard
Action: Dec. 17, 2009
Awarded: May 19, 2012

While under attack from a large enemy force at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, Bozzay, a physician assistant, moved 200 meters under fire to where five members of his unit were seriously injured. Bozzay began to treat the wounded, moving them one by one to safer positions while the battle continued around them. He repeatedly used his body to shield wounded comrades from incoming mortar and machine gun fire. All of the injured unit members survived.

SPC Brian M. Sheetz
1st Battalion, 103rd Armor, 28th Infantry Division,
Pennsylvania National Guard
Action: Feb. 27, 2006
Awarded: May 2006

A loader on an M1 tank, Sheetz and his crewmembers came under ambush while patrolling a supply route near Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq. In the attack, a grenade was thrown inside the tank. Sheetz grabbed it, positioned himself between the grenade and his crewmates, and threw it out of the loader’s hatch just as it detonated. Sheetz suffered shrapnel wounds to his right hand and left temple, but his actions saved the lives of his crewmembers.

SPC Jason L. Mike
617th Military Police Company, 503rd Military Police Battalion, 
Kentucky National Guard
Action: March 20, 2005
Awarded: June 16, 2005

Mike was the medic assigned to a three-vehicle patrol escorting a 30-truck convoy south of Baghdad when enemy forces ambushed, disabling the lead vehicle. Nearly 50 insurgents attacked, firing automatic weapons and RPGs from an orchard and deep irrigation trench. Caught in heavy fire, Mike was forced to attend to wounded comrades while using a pistol, rifle, machine gun and anti-tank gun against attackers advancing from both sides. After the fighting, which left more than 30 insurgents dead or wounded, Mike stabilized wounded Soldiers, saving the lives of three U.S. troops and numerous convoy members.

SSG Emmett Spraktes
1/168th General Support Aviation Battalion,
California National Guard
Action: July 17, 2009
Awarded: June 13, 2010

Flying to the aid of an ambushed infantry platoon in northern Afghanistan’s Watapur Valley, Spraktes, a flight medic, chose to be lowered to the platoon’s position under heavy Taliban fire to offer medical assistance. On the ground, he treated five wounded Soldiers, allowing them to be evacuated from the firefight while he provided suppressive gunfire. Spraktes refused to be hoisted out, giving his seat to other Soldiers and choosing to remain and fight. On the Black Hawk’s sixth pass, with all injured Soldiers evacuated, and under direct order, he finally left the area with his crew.

SGT Joseph Proctor
638th Support Battalion (Aviation), 
Indiana National Guard
Action: May 3, 2006
Awarded: Dec. 20, 2006

Proctor served as an Iraqi military transition team trainer in Anbar province. He was on duty at Observation Post 293, a frequent target for insurgents, when the installation came under fierce attack. A dump truck loaded with explosives penetrated the gate and headed toward the center of the compound. Proctor stood his ground, firing over 25 rounds head-on into the cab, killing the driver before the truck could reach the interior of the post. The vehicular suicide bomb detonated, mortally wounding Proctor, but not before he saved countless lives.

SGT Matthew Zedwick
2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, 41st Brigade Combat Team, 
Oregon National Guard
Action: June 13, 2004
Awarded: Feb. 8, 2005

During a patrol near Taji, Iraq, Zedwick’s Humvee was struck by an IED, killing the gunner and seriously wounding the truck commander. With the vehicle in flames and taking fire from insurgents, Zedwick pulled his commander to safety. Running back through a barrage of gunfire, he tried but was unable to rescue the gunner’s body from the vehicle. He retrieved sensitive items before returning. He then used his body to shield the commander from mortar rounds and another IED. Zedwick, now a first lieutenant, continued to return fire and administer aid until a medevac helicopter arrived.

SFC Mark A. Wanner
2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group,
Ohio National Guard
Action: May 31, 2009
Awarded: Feb. 6, 2010

During a raid on a Taliban compound, Wanner’s outnumbered Special Forces team took casualties almost immediately. Wanner, the senior medic, began tending to Sergeant First Class Sean Clifton, who was shot multiple times, while shielding him from additional fire. He coordinated suppressive fire and directed another medic, Sergeant First Class Matthew Sheaffer, to take a grenade from Wanner’s kit and lob it to stop the shooting from a nearby window. Through his actions, he and Sheaffer were able to carry Clifton to a vehicle for evacuation. Wanner attended to Clifton on the medevac flight and for three days, until he was airlifted to a U.S. Army hospital in Germany.

1SG Kevin K. Remington
957th Multi-Role Bridge Company, 
North Dakota National Guard
Action: July 22, 2003
Awarded: Jan. 25, 2004

Near Ramadi, Iraq, Remington and his engineer company were attacked by a group of insurgents. With several Soldiers from his team wounded, he and four others maneuvered their gun truck through intense fire four separate times to save fallen comrades. Remington simultaneously conducted a rescue mission, gave first aid and engaged enemy fire from multiple locations, all while planning the mission’s next steps. He retired as a command sergeant major.

SFC Ryan Ahern
2nd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group,
Illinois National Guard
Action: Dec. 17, 2009
Awarded: May 19, 2012

Ahern’s special operations unit was attacked by an enemy force numbering dozens of Taliban at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, while escorting a French military unit. He was knocked unconscious by mortar fire and, along with four others, suffered machine-gun wounds. Regaining consciousness, he successfully fired numerous high-explosive recoilless rifle rounds at the enemy’s position, holding off the enemy alone. His actions suppressed hostile fire long enough to allow other members of the unit to reinforce their positions. Ultimately, everyone survived the attack. For his part in saving combined forces that day, Ahern also received the French equivalent to the Silver Star, the Croix de la Valeur Militaire.

CPT John Vanlandingham
1st Battalion, 206th Field Artillery, 39th Infantry Brigade,
Arkansas National Guard
Action: Nov. 14, 2004
Awarded: Aug. 12, 2007

Vanlandingham was leading a convoy, including about 50 ING troops in unarmored vehicles,  from an oil refinery near Camp Taji, Iraq, when two IEDs detonated behind him. His lead vehicle was able to move to safety. But several Iraqi Soldiers were caught in an ambush, so he came back, ordered suppressive fire and made several runs through heavy fire to carry a dozen severely wounded Iraqi troops (along with sensitive weapons) from a roadside ditch to vehicles. “The Iraqis, to me, were like American Soldiers,” he says. Three Iraqi Soldiers died, but several more survived because of Vanlandingham’s actions.

1LT Michael McCarty
3rd Battalion, 153rd Infantry, 39th Brigade Combat Team,
Arkansas National Guard
Action: Nov. 20, 2004
Awarded: Feb. 4, 2006

McCarty knew the enemy was massing for an attack on North Baghdad’s Adhamiyah police station. His platoon had been assigned to protect the station, and one of his vehicles had already been badly damaged by a suicide car bomb that detonated just yards away, injuring two Soldiers. He had evacuated the wounded and returned to the attack zone. By now, McCarty’s outnumbered 26-man platoon was under heavy fire from at least 75 insurgents with machine guns, RPGs and small arms.

Then an RPG hit McCarty’s vehicle, wounding the driver, radio operator, gunner and McCarty. As he regained his bearings, he saw a machine-gun crew preparing to fire on his wounded team. Moving continually as his platoon covered him, McCarty single-handedly took out the machine-gunners one by one. He then continued to expose himself to draw out insurgent targets, moving house to house with his team to finish what the enemy started. An hour and a half later, McCarty’s platoon—he calls them “26 heroes”—had killed 30 insurgents and put down the attack.

Retired on disability from the Guard after serving for nearly 15 years, McCarty now works with his twin brother, Patrick, also a decorated Veteran, on Patrick’s 80-acre shooting range in Bald Knob, AR. And continuing to watch out for his brothers-in-arms, he’s a member of a board that brings wounded Soldiers to the area for recreational duck hunts. 

– Stories by Ronnie Brooks / All photos courtesy of the National Guard unless otherwise noted

Editor’s note: All citations reflect the rank Soldiers were holding at the time of their actions.