I Will Defend: The Michael Monsoor Story
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By Elizabeth M. Collins, Defense Media Activity
Operation Kentucky Jumper was supposed to be their last mission. It was a clearance and isolation operation. It had been a long, hard deployment to Ramadi, Iraq — six months of near-daily firefights as they worked with the Army and Marine Corps to retake the city, street by street, from al-Qaida insurgents. The men of SEAL Team 3, Delta Platoon were exhausted, but they were days from going home, so close they could almost smell the salty San Diego air.
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In fact, Operation Kentucky Jumper, in late September 2006, was volunteer, as much of the detachment was needed to pack up gear.
One of the first men to raise his hand was Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Michael Monsoor, the platoon's heavy machine gunner. He was also responsible for communications, so he played two key roles on the mission, according to Chief Warrant Officer 3 Benjamin Oleson.
Together with two other SEALs, the men hunkered down on a rooftop, taking up an overwatch position in the overnight hours of Sept. 29. None of them realized that their lives were about to change forever. Before sunset, three would be wounded and Monsoor would be gone forever, taken in a blaze of valor so stunning that he would not only receive the Medal of Honor but would also be immortalized by the Navy he so loved. USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001), a Zumwalt-class destroyer, is set to be commissioned in California this month.
“Monsoor is an incredible honor that the Navy has bestowed upon him and his family,” said Oleson. “I went out to the christening event, and I was completely blown away [by] the sheer size of what this ship represents. I think if Mikey saw the ship, he'd be like, 'That's too much. That's not for me. I'm just laid back.' But I think it's truly an honor that the Navy did this, especially the type of destroyer that it is. ... [with] its cutting-edge, advanced technology. I think, with Mikey in the platoon, always at the front, leading the way, the way the ship is designed, it's going to be leading the way in the future.”
It was actually Monsoor's first deployment, but you would never know it, his teammates said. He treated even the most junior personnel with respect, and was kind to Iraqi children. He was laser-focused, so squared away that leaders moved his position in the squad to the front, where his heavy machine gun could protect their point man and where he could immediately respond to the near-daily enemy attacks.
“As soon as that contact would start,” Oleson said, “you would just hear that 48 rock off and you knew it was going to be OK.”
That happened a lot throughout the deployment. Delta Platoon was based at Camp Corregidor, in eastern Ramadi. There, the SEALs lived in a squalid, dilapidated shack they built up and nicknamed “Full Metal Jacket.” Off duty, they worked out and joked, talked about home. A devout Catholic, Monsoor also visited the chapel whenever he could. On duty, the SEALs supported the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division in the brutal fight to win back the city.
“We basically tried squeezing off Ramadi from all sides,” said Oleson. “That tactic wasn't working. So what could we do next? We came up with the idea of building these ... combat posts within the city limits.” With some help from the Army Corps of Engineers, the SEALs were able to methodically push further into the city to secure it.
Through it all, the SEALs relied on the quiet, steadying presence of Monsoor. He was already up for the Silver Star. During a firefight the previous May, he had fought his way through enemy fire to reach a wounded SEAL, and then dragged him to safety.
“As a SEAL, one of the greatest accolades you can have is being known as reliable,” said Monsoor's team leader, retired Lt. Cmdr. Michael Sarraille. “Reputation in the SEAL teams is everything. It starts day one of Basic Underwater Demolition School. Especially if you're a quiet guy who just performs, your reputation skyrockets, and Mikey was that guy. He was dependable, especially in a firefight in the streets of Ramadi. ... When Mikey was to your side, you felt safe.”
During Operation Kentucky Jumper it was no different.
Together with eight Iraqi scouts, the four-man SEAL team infiltrated enemy-held territory in the Mulaab district of Ramadi under the cover of darkness. “We had operated in the area before,” Sarraille recalled. “We knew it, and we had chosen a prominent building that would give us a marked advantage over the enemy, high up, high over the positions on the street. When the morning hours hit and the sunlight came up, we almost immediately came under contact and eliminated a few fighters. ... There were intermittent attacks throughout the day.”
At the same time, Iraqi civilians blocked off the streets near the Americans' position, at once isolating them and slowing down any potential reinforcements, even as a local mosque issued a call-to-arms for insurgents.
Sarraille repositioned Monsoor's heavy machine gun, facing him toward the direction from which most of the attacks were coming.
“All of a sudden,” Sarraille remembered, “a grenade came over the lip of the wall, barely cleared the wall and hit Mikey right in the chest. ... It fell to the ground. I was to his right three feet, seated, and Doug Wallace was to his left three feet, also seated on the ground.
“Of the three of us, Mikey probably had the greatest chance of survival. All he had to do was turn the other direction, jump and he would have lived. ... But due to Mikey's character and his quick train of thought, he knew that if he chose self-preservation, which is sometimes needed on the battlefield, Doug and I would most likely perish, and he was right.”
Instead, Monsoor dove onto the grenade, and Sarraille and Wallace were wounded. Sarraille ended up with about 30 shrapnel wounds.
“All I felt was pain. I quickly looked back toward Mikey's direction. His head was facing my direction. His eyes were open. I yelled, 'Mikey! Mikey! Mikey!' and there was nothing. He was just lifeless, and my heart sunk.
“And then it just got worse from there.” The team came under automatic weapons fire. The radio had been destroyed. Most of the Iraqi soldiers ran off. The only man capable of responding was Oleson.
“Being behind Mikey,” Oleson said, “what I remember hearing was, 'Grenade!' and the next thing I knew was the explosion. I got knocked out for a few seconds, and when I came to, I had three of my very close friends ... wounded, and quickly tried to assess the situation. ... What was kind of going through my mind was, 'I'm in a really terrible location.' I took small fragments to my calves, but I'm the most maneuverable, operable out of all four of us that were there.”
He pulled Monsoor to the center of the rooftop and began treating him. Sarraille managed to low crawl to a terrified Iraqi and appropriated his outdated radio. He eventually reached another SEAL. Help arrived in minutes, although it felt like hours because their rescuers had to fight through enemy forces on the ground to get there.
“They threw myself, Mikey and Doug into the Bradley [fighting vehicle], and then we took off for an aid station,” said Sarraille. “Again, it seemed like ages. It probably took about 20, 25 minutes. ... All I remember is another SEAL ... doing chest compressions on Mikey to keep him alive. He was declared deceased when we got to that aid station.” It was a sobering, heart-breaking moment, and the beginning of a new mission for his survivors.
“We're all trying to live in Mikey's memory to the best of our ability,” said Sarraille. Monsoor is the first thing he thinks of in the morning, and the last before he falls asleep at night. He even named his son after his fallen brother. “That's our job now. ... When Mikey saved me and Doug, the only thing you can do is look in the mirror and do a brutal, honest self-assessment.”
And on every mission after, he said, he “would always, in the back of my head, say, 'God help me if there is something I fail to do that didn't bring home one of my guys.' I was adamant about never losing another man in combat. Unfortunately, that's just not the way it works.”
“I miss him,” Oleson added. “Part of me wishes he wouldn't have [done it] because he was a great friend. But ... I am very thankful because I am here today. ... By him going down on that grenade, I now have a family. I have three kids, and I owe that all to Mikey.”
Monsoor posthumously received the Medal of Honor for “undaunted courage” in April 2008. His legacy of honor, of sacrifice, of protecting the innocent will live on in the ship that bears his name, just like he lived up to his own namesake, the Archangel Michael, patron saint of warriors, the saint on whose feast day, Sept. 29, he gave his life so that others could live. Monsoor himself was a saint, Sarraille believes, certainly the finest man he has ever known.
“Represent Mikey and represent Mikey well,” he advised the Sailors of USS Michael Monsoor. “He'd be proud to know that the ship is his namesake. ... The ship will represent Mikey and it will be a message to the world that no matter what, no matter the cost, we will act. We will fight back evil; we will eradicate it from this earth, no matter the cost.”
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