I'm very optimistic. It's awesome. It's beautiful. We're watching what America looked like right from the get-go that we weren't around to see over two hundred years ago. All the challenges and everything--they're not going to be perfect in a day. It took us two hundred years to get it halfway right.
--CAPTAIN BRIAN CHONTOSH
Two words. That was all it took.
"Push forward!" Captain Brian Chontosh yelled.
Like the swipe of a match across the strike plate, the marine captain's words ignited actions that would forever change the lives of five men. They would be outnumbered almost thirty to one. They would find themselves closer to death than at any other time in their lives, forcing them to puttheir fate into each others' hands. But above all, they would learn that in war, just as in life, sometimes the only way through danger is to "push forward."
That was certainly the case March 25, 2003, when then-Lieutenant Brian R. Chontosh, thirty-one, served as leader of his Combined Anti-Armor Team platoon (CAAT) for Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, First Marine Division, First Marine Expeditionary Force. Six feet tall and two hundred pounds, with chiseled facial features, the Rochester, New York, native is no stranger to peril. His mother, Robin Chontosh, says she sensed her son's courage early on.
"He's always been fearless," said his mother. "We always called him our wild child."1
Long before Captain Chontosh put on a marine uniform, he had dreams of wearing a different uniform entirely. "I went to college to play baseball," he told us. "I thought I was going to be a major league baseball star. I was a middle infielder. I wasn't that good, but every kid's got that dream."
His short stint playing college ball had been the culminating event in eighteen years of a life that, according to him, lacked direction, focus, and discipline. "I owe who I am today as a man to the military." Although not born into a "military family," the New Yorker says it was the tradition and mystique surrounding the Marine Corps that drew him in.
"I'm part of something greater than myself--a brotherhood, a bond. You read the stories of the guys who've gone before us, and I can't even hope to hold up the weight half as much as they did. You have that sense of tradition. I always told my men I wanted to be a 'dude among dudes.' I love thecamaraderie, the companionship. It's addictive to me and very, very rewarding to see people grow as human beings."
Baseball teams consist of nine players, but that blistering day in Ad Diwaniyah, Iraq, Captain Chontosh's team consisted of only four other men, all of whom he would soon see flourish. One of these individuals was Corporal Armand McCormick. The two men have known each other for over three years. They are, in many ways, different: Chontosh grew up in Rochester, New York, with close to a quarter of a million people. McCormick, on the other hand, hails from the quiet town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, population nine thousand. Despite their different upbringings, McCormick, twenty-three, says one word best explains the bond between them: mentality.
"I knew as soon as stuff happened that we were going to go into it. That's just the kind of person he [Chontosh] is. That's why he and I got along so well. I knew it would happen. The whole time we were there we would just do fun stuff like that. His leadership goes above and beyond," said McCormick.
Joining in Captain Chontosh and Corporal McCormick's "fun" would be a relative latecomer to the platoon, then-Lance Corporal Robert "Robbie" Kerman. It was the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that had propelled Kerman into the Marine Corps. "He was a freshman at University of Nevada, Reno, when 9/11 happened," Kerman's father recalls. "He called me September 12 and said, 'I want to quit school and do something meaningful. I want to join the corps.' Kerman's father could hardly protest his son's decision: "I did the same thing in 1966, when I was a freshman at UCLA and Vietnam was raging."2
"Kerman came fresh out of school," said Chontosh. "Young kid. His father was in Third Battalion, Fifth Marines in Vietnam, and he wanted to go serve in the same unit his father had served in. We took him under our wing. He came to the platoon real late and was one of the last ones to come into our platoon. He got meritoriously promoted that day to sergeant. Kerman is fabulous!"
As it happened, 9/11 had similarly galvanized Captain Chontosh's determination: "I'd just got done from a PT run. The guys were like, 'Sir, you've got to check this out.' I got there just as the second plane was hitting. I couldn't believe it. I sat there with the same shock as everyone else ... . I remember having this one thought: I am so lucky right now to be me, because I'm going to be able to do something for my country. I'm going to have a chance to do something about this."
When his chance finally came, Chontosh's five-man Humvee team included two more members, Corporal Thomas "Tank" Franklin, a .50-caliber machine gunner by specialty, and Corporal Korte, their Humvee radio operator.
"Thomas 'Tank' Franklin? Oh man! Tom Franklin is the best machine gunner with the .50-cal I've ever come across," said Captain Chontosh. "This is Thomas Franklin who is on terminal leave--he's out of the Marine Corps--and is going to college at Florida. Stop loss date was put into effect, and he'd made the cutoff date by four or five days; he could have stayed on terminal leave. He was my driver all the way through training, and he's a damn good .50-cal gunner. So I picked up the phone and said, 'Frankie, I gotta have you back, man.' He said, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'Yeah, we're leaving in about a week. He said, 'I'm on my way.' I had called in themiddle of his math class, and he walked out of class, went home to his wife, and said, 'Honey, I've got to go.' So he got on a bird and flew back."
Brian Chontosh might have traded the baseball diamond for the battlefield, but he had a new team, one comprised of corporals McCormick, Kerman, Franklin, and Korte. And he says he wouldn't have had it any other way. On March 25, 2003, he would lead these men headlong into danger so that their marine brothers wouldn't have to.
Captain Chontosh, known to his men as "Big Fish" or "Tosh," didn't like the looks of the eight-foot-tall berm lining the sides of Highway 1, just outside Baghdad, south of Ad Diwaniyah. The terrain was mostly desert, with small vegetation just beginning to spring up through the sandy soil. The roughly eighty-man platoon had been at war for five days now and had seen minimal action. But Chontosh knew that could and would change at a moment's notice.
The column was led by four M1-A1 Abrams tanks, which were followed by seven thin-skinned Humvees, each with a .50-caliber machine gun turret on top. Then-Lieutenant Chontosh rode in the passenger's seat. His vehicle was the first of the Humvees and trailed the last of the Abrams tanks by about fifty meters. McCormick was driving, Corporals Franklin and Kerman were at the turret, and Korte was at the radio. The arrangement was somewhat atypical. Having traveled hundreds of miles and not seen much action, the marines had become bored and thought it might be fun to break the monotony by shuffling their usual roles. McCormick, a basic rifleman, had never driven the Humvee.
"It's a little after five A.M. Iraq time, and it's starting to look like it's going to be another boring day," remembers Corporal McCormick. "But we only make it about two kilometers. We see some action up in front of the tanks: a white civilian truck--it looked like it had people in back. That's when we came up on the man-made berm. It's pretty tall, twenty-five meters off the road, and about eight feet tall. Captain Chontosh looks over and says, 'I'm a little nervous about that berm.' So he radios to the rest of our trucks to keep an eye out on this berm and that it looks a little suspicious."
The M1-A1 Abrams tanks in front of their Humvee (call sign "Blue One") came to an abrupt halt. McCormick mashed the break pedal.
Huge flashes streaked through the air in front of them. They were rocket-propelled grenades (RPG). The tanks stopped and buttoned up--the gunner quickly ducked inside and the vehicle commander scurried inside--but the tanks weren't moving. They just sat there.
"Push forward, Blue One! Push, push, push!" yelled Captain Chontosh.
Mortars, small-arms fire, and RPGs began flooding the kill zone. With the tanks blocking the thin-skinned Humvees, Chontosh's vehicle and the others were now stationary targets; they were trapped. The tanks started to inch forward, only to jerk in fits and starts. Corporal McCormick was itching to grab his M-16, dismount the vehicle, and "do some damage." He was a rifleman by specialty. Instead of his weapon, however, his hands were now gripped around the steering wheel of their Humvee.
Chontosh's eyes darted back and forth across Highway 1.He couldn't see where the fire was coming from. No one could. The berm had obstructed their view. But he was determined to find the source of the enemy fire. He ordered McCormick to whip out of the column and off-road the vehicle.
"I have no idea what was going on at that time. I don't want to say it was instinct. I don't want to say it was training. It all boils down to luck and chance I think. Just aggressive action. We just had to do something. I want to say that my mind was perfectly clear, but I wasn't thinking," said Chontosh.
He then spotted a small "driveway" that led into the berm. Covering from vegetation almost prevented the marines from catching the tiny entryway. McCormick was driving fast. He jerked a hard right. The Humvee barely fit through the snug driveway. It felt like he was driving through a narrow hallway.
"As soon as we take a right, we see this machine-gun bunker. We see just flashes shooting at us. Corporal Franklin sitting on top with the .50-cal just neutralizes that bunker within seconds--right away," said McCormick.
The decision to have Franklin on the .50-caliber had proved fateful. He was an ace on the gun and could shoot with devastating accuracy, even while moving at high speeds. Had Franklin not locked in on the five Iraqis blasting away from their machine-gun bunker, the five marines might have been killed the instant their Humvee penetrated the berm.
The sight was something to behold, even for the seasoned Chontosh: "Franklin's free-gunning with the .50-cal off road and shooting accurately while we're on the move. It was amazing to watch."
Equally adept were McCormick's driving skills. He floored the Humvee while averting enemy fire before whipping thevehicle into a tight indentation in the berm that served as a makeshift "parking spot." The area inside the enemy nest was large, about two hundred meters or so in size. A trench lay just across the way. Chontosh, Kerman, and McCormick leapt out of the vehicle. Franklin stayed on the .50-caliber, Korte on the radio.
"I jumped out," said McCormick. "Franklin asked me for a can of ammo. 'Tosh' and Kerman are running down into the trench. I caught up to them and ran in there too. We ran almost two hundred yards. That's when all hell breaks loose. There were guys everywhere. I was just shooting. There were enemy everywhere. There were people five feet in front of us. We had to run by and double tap to make sure they were gone as we made our way down the trench ... . I holstered my 9 mm and grabbed an AK-47 that was laying on the ground. But the enemy were on top of us. Just right there, right on us. There was nothing to duck behind," McCormick recalls.
Entering the trench had been the equivalent of a boot stomping on an ant mound. The minute the three marines entered the trench, enemy fighters flooded the zone. Official estimates indicated that the three marines had been swarmed by a company-sized element of roughly 150 to 200 Iraqi fighters. The deafening noise emanating from Corporal Franklin's .50-caliber machine gun had sent many of the enemy soldiers scrambling for cover. But the fiercest Iraqis were now engaging the three young marines in groups of five and six in close-quarter combat, often at an arm's-length distance.
Always quick to share credit with his boys, Chontosh says it was Kerman and McCormick's skills that kept him alive. "They saved my life that day without a doubt. Kerman theway he's shootin'; McCormick the way he's driving. Kerman was so cool: just one shot, one shot, one shot. He was so cool in there," said Chontosh.
What the gracious leader fails to mention, however, was that as Kerman and McCormick were shooting with the utmost proficiency, Captain Chontosh was busy taking down at least twenty enemy shooters with his M-16 rifle and 9 mm pistol. Some of the enemy fighters wore civilian rags; others donned war belts. But each Iraqi had been outfitted with an impressive array of AK-47s, 9 mm pistols, and RPG launchers. As the three marines dropped enemy after enemy, weapons of opportunity began multiplying on the battlefield.
"I grabbed an AK-47 and just let it fly," said Chontosh.
Asked what he was thinking during the close-quarter combat assault, Corporal McCormick responded, "I was thinking, 'I need some more ammo!' That's what I'm thinking!"
Kerman, the new guy, the "boot" as marines call them, was rapidly gaining respect in the hearts and minds of the other four. His calm, sure demeanor and skillful shooting elevated his status instantly.
Even though the first flurry of action inside the trench had now begun to calm slightly, the rest of the platoon still had no clue about the brutal battle their five marine brothers were caught in. There had been no time for Chontosh to establish communication with the tanks. Meanwhile, Corporal Korte, the radio operator, had cautioned the rest of the platoon about entering the trench. Doing so, he worried, might increase the odds of a possible friendly fire tragedy.
Still, Chontosh, McCormick, and Kerman had to somehow make it back to Franklin and Korte, who were waiting in thetruck. Two football fields' worth of distance separated them from their Humvee. With Iraqis still firing at them, they decided to make a run for it and dashed through the trench toward their vehicle. Along the way, Corporal McCormick had snatched up an enemy RPG launcher and tossed it to Chontosh.
"If you can figure out how to fire this thing, we can get the hell out of here," McCormick said.
Captain Chontosh quickly looked the weapon over. He then raised it into a firing position before squeezing the trigger. A grenade shot out of the weapon and skimmed across the ground, sending enemy fighters scurrying for cover. The act of turning the enemy fighters' own weapon against them bought McCormick enough time to get back behind the wheel.
"Going out of there I was going as fast as a Humvee can drive," McCormick said.
When the dust settled, Chontosh had cleared two hundred meters of enemy trench, killed more than twenty Iraqi fighters, and wounded numerous others. But when their Humvee broke through the berm and back out onto Highway 1, there was no time for Chontosh or his teammates to contemplate the gravity of the events that had just unfolded. Indeed, as the day turned to night, McCormick realized he had almost forgotten the significance of the date: It was his twenty-first birthday.
"There was absolutely no time to think of anything about what had happened," said Chontosh. "Immediately after that action, tanks were on the radio calling for infantry support. There's no time to think about dying. I was more scared two or three days after it was all over. It didn't hit me until after the fact. I was more scared after the fact than I ever was during the action."
That night the men of Third Battalion, Fifth Marines had other things on their minds. A horrendous sandstorm had sent blinding waves of sand crashing against their vehicles. There was so much sand whooshing through the air that not even their night-vision goggles (NVG) and thermal imaging worked. Captain Chontosh and Corporal McCormick were exhausted from the hell they had experienced inside the enemy trench, but they refused to sleep that night. Instead, the two men rode vehicle to vehicle checking on their platoon's general welfare and morale. Platoon Leader Chontosh's primary concern remained his boys, many of whom had just experienced their first taste of battle.
"When it all calmed down we all started laughing about how crazy it was," said McCormick. "We started talking about what all happened in there and what in the hell we were thinking. Franklin kept asking questions and telling us we were crazy. During the deal, there was really no thinking. Afterwards we laughed about it. It was pretty funny that I took that RPG and had 'Tosh' shoot it. That's kind of a no-no to mess around with foreign weapons."
But Chontosh realized that extreme circumstances sometimes demand extreme action. As it happened, the danger they had encountered that day would be a harbinger of things to come. In the days that followed, action picked up dramatically. While there would be no more close-quarter battles that rivaled the intensity of those of March 25, Chontosh and his men took fire virtually every day thereafter.
On May 6, 2004, at a ceremony at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center, Twentynine Palms, California, thecommandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General Michael W. Hagee, awarded the second-highest award a marine can receive, the Navy Cross, to Captain Chontosh. The third-highest award, the Silver Star, went to Corporals Armand McCormick and Robert Kerman. "They are the reflection of the Marine Corps type whose service to the Marine Corps and country is held above their own safety and lives," said General Hagee.
Captain Chontosh's wife, Joy, and their two children, Sara and Colby, know the truth behind General Hagee's words all too well. "She [Joy Chontosh] gets nervous and goes through some emotional times," said Captain Chontosh. "I'm pretty fortunate, though. She's been through a lot. She's been through three deployments in four years. Two combat tours. Knowing that she's as strong as she is allows me to go away and focus on my job. She's been phenomenal."
The ceremony and accolades meant a lot to Captain Chontosh, but they're not what he cherishes most. "You don't need to get rewarded. I've got something between me and Armand, Robbie Kerman, Franklin, all those guys, the whole platoon. We've got something close. We've got something we can share," Chontosh told us.
Corporal Kerman, twenty-one, a Klamath Falls, Oregon, native, had not only earned the respect of his new platoon, he had also lived up to the fine tradition of his father's service as a marine in Third Battalion, Fifth Marines. "I was pretty scared at the time, but we knew what we had to do and we did it," Kerman said. "I did not expect the award. Maybe I just did the right thing."3
As for Corporal McCormick, immediately following the ceremony he had some important business to tend to. TheMay 6 awards ceremony was to mark his discharge from the marines, but McCormick had just received word that his buddies weren't getting out until sometime in September or October as combat replacements. "So I walked over and did some work on the extension papers to go back for another three months. I left the day after I got the Silver Star to go back to Iraq. I didn't want to see my buddies go to war while I was home relaxing and enjoying life, all the while knowing they were over there in danger." McCormick's fiancée, Lacey Meyers, wasn't wild about her future husband's decision to voluntarily hop on a plane and head back to the battlefield within twenty-four hours, but she respected it. Deeply.
Today, Armand McCormick is a full-time criminology major at the University of Northern Iowa. Having spent seven months fighting during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the former marine says he misses the corps more than he ever imagined. McCormick says the liberal climate that pervades college campuses today combined with the liberal news media has radically distorted the views of many of today's young people: "I've had a few conversations about [the War on Terror] in the liberal classrooms I go to every day. A lot of the time I just look at them and tell them that they don't have any clue what they're talking about, because all they do is listen to liberal news. I always tell them, 'If you don't experience something, how in the hell can you say what will happen?'
"I had a personal experience. Most college campuses, ninety percent of the students are liberals. It was a rainy day and I was walking out of class, and there was this antiwar rally going on. I didn't respond very well. My fiancée and I kind of got into it with all of them. One guy told me, 'If youthink the war is okay, then why don't you go and serve!' ... He said, 'The Iraqis don't want us there!' So I asked him, 'How do you know?' A bunch of people got on me and my fiancée's side. We ended up breaking up their rally."
Similarly, Captain Chontosh, who also later fought heroically in Fallujah, Iraq, believes the mainstream media continue to give Americans a stunningly distorted and negative view that stands in sharp contrast to the countless positive developments he has seen firsthand:
Absolutely there's a difference! We're so focused on the negative things. I've seen the great, beautiful things. I look at the Iraqi children. They're fabulous ... . The elderly people, when you sit and talk to them, you find that they're good, decent, people who want us there ... . There are a lot of great things going on there. We talked about the elections, but even in the area I was in, Ad Diwuniyah, alone, we built 134 schools! Where is that in the news? We refitted two hospitals; clean water is in greater supply than prewar levels; sewage disposal; waste management is getting taken care of properly. There are a lot of things going on that people don't see and don't want to concentrate on. It's not interesting. It's not sexy.
Captain Chontosh says he has learned to not allow the critics and naysayers to stir up negative emotions within him. Instead, he just "lets it go" and remains hopeful about the seeds of liberation the U.S. military has sown.
"I'm very optimistic," Chontosh told us. "It's awesome. It's beautiful. We're watching what America looked like right from the get-go that we weren't around to see over two hundredyears ago. All the challenges and everything--they're not going to be perfect in a day. It took us two hundred years to get it halfway right, because we're only halfway right as it is. But it is beautiful to sit and watch it ... . All I know is that there is a lot of good that we're doing over there that you don't see. The children--we're doing good things."
The children--they stand out in Corporal McCormick's mind as well. He says that at least 80 percent of the Iraqi people "love you, they're all about you. They want you to be here. They're real thankful for you." It's the memory of the children that gives him hope for the future. "There were always these kids sitting outside of our camp," McCormick recalls. "They'd always want to hang out with us. So we would often go play soccer with them. We'd put little security gates out. And someone would go get a soccer ball, and we'd play soccer with the Iraqi kids. They were pretty good, too! They could kick a soccer ball and run around with bare feet. It was fun."
Equally exciting, says McCormick, was the sight of Iraqis voting free in open, democratic elections. "It makes you feel like you've actually accomplished something personally ... . Deep down inside, there's not anyone who can honestly say that they don't feel as though they've accomplished something over there. I watch the news--FOX News--all the time. I like seeing all the Iraqis so happy. Seeing the women out there voting was awesome! When we were over there, I couldn't believe how the men would walk twenty feet in front of the women, and the women would be carrying all the groceries and the kids. It's awesome now knowing they have some kind of life now. It's a good feeling."
As for Captain Chontosh, the kid from Rochester, NewYork, he still exudes the same humility and graciousness that he did before receiving the Navy Cross. "I'm the same person as I was before," Chontosh said. "I'm just an average Joe. There's no hero about it. I was lucky enough to have the day to show what I was capable of doing."
In the end, Captain Chontosh and Corporals Armand McCormick and Robert Kerman say they do not consider themselves heroes, just men that were doing their job, marines that "pressed forward" in the face of certain danger.
OFFICIAL NAVY CROSS CITATION
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to
Brian Chontosh United States Marine Corps
for service as set forth in the following:
For extraordinary heroism as Combined Anti-Armor Platoon Commander, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM on 25 March 2003. While leading his platoon north on Highway I toward Ad Diwaniyah, First Lieutenant Chontosh's platoon moved into a coordinated ambush of mortars, rocket propelled grenades, and automatic weapons fire. With coalition tanks blocking the road ahead, he realized his platoon was caught in a kill zone. He had his driver move the vehicle through a breach along his flank, where he was immediately taken under fire from an entrenched machine gun. Without hesitation, First Lieutenant Chontosh ordered the driver to advance directly at the enemy position enabling his .50 caliber machine gunner to silence the enemy. He then directed his driver into the enemy trench where he exited his vehicle and began to clear the trench with an M16A2 service rifle and 9 millimeter pistol. His ammunition depleted, First Lieutenant Chontosh, with complete disregard for his safety, twice picked up discarded enemy rifles and continued his ferocious attack. When a Marine following him found an enemy rocketpropelled grenade launcher, First Lieutenant Chontosh used it to destroy yet another group of enemy soldiers. When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Chontosh reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.