Afghan President Hamid Karzai, third from left, arrives for a groundbreaking ceremony in the Bayan district flanked by Diplomatic Security special agents. Diplomatic Securty special agents travel with President Karzai everywhere he travels in the world. (AP)
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In the weeks after Sept. 11, an elite unit code-named "Texas 1-2" infiltrated deep into Taliban territory, organized Hamid Karzai's ragtag militia and advised it in a series of battles to control southern Afghanistan — often against superior numbers.
On Dec. 5, 2001, at the end of the monthlong mission and two days before the fall of Kandahar, a friendly fire bomb attack killed two members of the 12-man Operational Detachment Alpha 574, and the team left the country. Nine other unit members were wounded in the blast. Karzai, also wounded, became president of Afghanistan in 2004.
For their actions, Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, the former commander of ODA 574, 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, told Army Times he twice recommended nearly every member of the team for the Silver Star for valor — but the Army says they were never granted the award.
More than a decade later, there are new questions after three of the men — Sgts. 1st Class Ronnie Raikes, Michael McElhiney and Gilbert Magallanes — were listed as Silver Star recipients in an awards database improperly posted online by a contractor.
The exposed database, since removed, mysteriously contained nine more Silver Stars than the Defense Department's public listings. Army Secretary John McHugh has since suggested that some of these awards were not listed because they pertained to sensitive missions but that Raikes, McElhiney and Magallanes were listed in error.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., wants the Army to figure out if it truly was an error on the list, or if the three were denied the medal because of an Army mix-up. Hunter asked McHugh to investigate.
Hunter was dissatisfied with the official explanation, that the trio's inclusion on the Silver Star list was a "typo."
"While I understand that a ‘typo' is said to be the cause for all three erroneously identified as Silver Star recipients, it is my hope that we can use the opportunity presented by the ongoing review of the awards process to ascertain whether these three soldiers — all of whom were recommended for Silver Stars — actually received the higher award for their heroic actions in combat," Hunter said in a Dec. 18 letter to McHugh.
Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine, has written a series of letters pressing for a full account of how the database appeared online, and in October, he asked the Army to "take immediate action to review Silver Star upgrades and, if necessary, notify any soldiers deserving of higher recognition."
In all, the database held 518 records of the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star recipients for actions since the wars' start in 2001. Social Security numbers appeared for six MoH and 25 DSC recipients but not for any Silver Star recipients.
The Army has since pledged to pay for credit monitoring services for the affected soldiers. McHugh plans monthly reviews of the top three valor awards to ensure that soldiers listed on the Defense Department's valor award website were verified as recipients.
Hunter called for McHugh to include the cases of Raikes, McElhiney and Magallanes in his ongoing reviews.
In 2001, on the day after the blast that led ODA 547 to be medically evacuated, Amerine recommended the Silver Star for the two soldiers who were killed, Master Sgt. Jefferson Davis and Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Petithory.
Later that month, Amerine recommended awards for the rest of the unit, including Staff Sgt. Alan Yoshida, an Air Force combat controller attached to the unit, who received the Silver Star. Amerine also recommended Raikes, McElhiney, Magallanes and then-Sgt. Wes McGirr for the Silver Star. McGirr had been shot in the neck and flown to a hospital 12 hours before the bomb blast.
After the four men were awarded an interim Bronze Star for valor the following year, Amerine resubmitted the recommendation for their awards.
Because his submissions may have been among the first of the war, Amerine said he believes his may have been hindered because "there was a great deal of confusion surrounding how to process valor awards."
"It likely took five years or more for the military to develop a system to process awards, and the infrastructure needed to catch up," he said.
What's more, valor awards are typically given to recognize a burst of decisive action over a short period or single engagement. Amerine said his men displayed valor over a series of battles.
"We were behind enemy lines for three weeks, and their actions over the entire campaign, in my opinion, warrant the Silver Star," Amerine said. "The campaign went exceedingly well when we weren't expected to make it out alive. This wasn't a single engagement; our lives were at great risk the entire time."
In the blast, Raikes sustained nerve damage in his right arm; Magallanes has an extensive brain injury and other medical problems; and McElhiney, the legislative director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, lost his right hand and part of his forearm.
McElhiney told Army Times he wonders whether a line was drawn between Davis and Petithory, who were killed, and the rest of the team.
"I feel like a precedent was set that if you're killed in action, that's when you get it, posthumously," he said.