2 Army sergeants from Va. awarded Silver Star

Staff Sgt. Linsey W. Clarke risked his life for the wounded.
Staff Sgt. Linsey W. Clarke risked his life for the wounded.
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Army Staff Sgt. Linsey W. Clarke was on his first deployment to Afghanistan, and under fire for only the second time, but the Special Forces junior medic from Staunton, Va., risked his life to aid severely wounded comrades in an insurgent ambush in February.

For his bravery in combat, Clarke, 26, received the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest combat medal, in a ceremony Wednesday at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Another Special Forces sergeant from Virginia, Army Sgt. 1st Class Anthony M. Siriwardene, 39, of Arlington County, received a Silver Star for his actions during more than two days of heavy fighting in Afghanistan's Zabul province in August 2005.

Clarke graduated from James Madison University in 2005 and then enlisted in the Special Forces as a medic.

He deployed to Afghanistan's Uruzgan province with the 3rd Special Forces group in January 2009, but soon after his 12-man team arrived, its senior medic was killed by insurgents. Eight days later, on Feb. 20, Clarke and his team were on patrol when insurgents struck again.

A massive roadside bomb ripped into the team's rear vehicle, setting it ablaze and fatally wounding three servicemen. Insurgents then attacked the lead vehicle with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy gunfire.

Clarke ran through a barrage of gunfire to the vehicle, finding Staff Sgt. Eric Engelhardt lying near the wreckage, his legs broken and back fractured. The burning vehicle was loaded with ammunition and explosives that were detonating inches away, but Clarke applied a tourniquet to Engelhardt and then pulled him away from the vehicle to a safer position.

He then ran back 100 yards through gunfire to aid other wounded.

"Sergeant Clarke's actions on 20 February went well above and beyond the call of duty," according to an official military narrative of the action. "He repeatedly faced imminent danger and at no point, did he show any regard for his personal safety."

Nevertheless, Clarke said he felt he didn't deserve the medal.

"I feel guilty for being recognized for this award," said Clarke, who has extended his enlistment to be able to deploy again with his unit.

In a very different type of battle in Afghanistan, in summer 2005, Siriwardene showed grit and valor in "seven fierce engagements with a well-trained and aggressive enemy" within a span of 56 hours, according to an official narrative of his award.

Siriwardene, whose family immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka when he was 8, graduated from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington and enlisted in the Army. He has served five deployments in Afghanistan and two in Iraq.

On Aug. 7, 2005, Siriwardene and his team launched a patrol into a suspected Taliban safe haven in a valley in the Mari Ghar region of Zabul province, where few coalition forces had been before. They would discover that the valley, filled with orchards, streams and livestock, was a year-round base for Taliban training and operations, one the insurgents would fight fiercely to defend, he said.

After the U.S. patrol entered the valley, it came under heavy fire by machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, the narrative says.

"We were at a tremendous disadvantage," Siriwardene recalled. After the first wave of fighting, Afghan civilians swarmed out of the valley, leaving every village abandoned. "It was eerie driving through there," Siriwardene said.

Siriwardene knew that his team had drawn out the Taliban and that they had massed for a fight. "They brought all their people and their guns, and we brought all our people and guns, and we just had it out," he said.

At one point, Siriwardene's gunner caught fire after his ammunition bag was hit. But the volume of incoming gunfire was so great that the gunner had to keep firing back while Siriwardene put out the fire.

Soon, a group of Afghan army soldiers became trapped by insurgent fire and "scattered throughout the enemy kill zone," according to the narrative. Siriwardene stayed behind and maneuvered through a barrage of grenades and machine gun fire to gather up the Afghan soldiers.

"The ground started shaking" as the grenades landed as close as 20 feet away, Siriwardene recalled. "They were engaging us from the high ground, just pounding away," he said.

"If not for the bravery of Sergeant Siriwardene, moving under enormous amounts of fire, ensuring no [Afghan soldiers] were left behind, the [Afghan soldiers] . . . would have sustained tremendous losses," the narrative says.

During the last firefight, Siriwardene's team, which usually carried three times the normal amount of ammunition, was down to a few hundred rounds for its .50-caliber machine guns and was also running out of 7.62mm rifle ammunition. The team suffered six wounded and one killed; it killed more than 60 insurgents, according to official accounts.

Siriwardene's "calm manner and tactical competence under fire were imperative to the detachment's survival," the narrative says.

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