Senior Soldier Awarded Silver Star for Actions in Fierce Fight
By Master Sgt. Eric Lobsinger, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT HOOD, Texas, Dec. 3, 2004 U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Ron Riling said he's honored to be awarded the Silver Star, but he'd gladly give it back if it would bring back the 12 Marines who lost their lives in Rammadi, Iraq, April 6.
"I'd do it in a heartbeat," Riling said. "That would be my reward, to let those kids be still alive. I'd do it in a minute."
Riling, who serves as the 4th Infantry Division's command sergeant major, was serving with 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, when he and his brigade commander, Col. Buck Connor, were notified Marines attached to their brigade were pinned down by enemy fire.
Their brigade combat team had been enhanced by two Marine Corps battalions and several National Guard soldiers.
Riling said the decision to enter the fray was an easy one. "The colonel looked at me and said 'Sergeant Major, let's go.'"
Riling quickly organized his forces and began moving to the embattled Marines. When they entered the main town of Rammadi, they immediately came under direct fire coming from every direction, he said.
"The insurgents were in all different types of buildings waiting for us with (rocket-propelled grenades) and small arms," he said.
The Marine squad had been pinned down by snipers and was in terrible shape when Riling, Connor and their physical-security detachment arrived on the scene. The squad leader was dead, lying in the middle of the street, and three of the seven Marines were seriously wounded. The senior remaining Marine was a corporal.
"There were no other senior guys around," Riling said. "That kid was doing the best he could, fighting the fight. I could tell those guys were under a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. They knew what they were doing, but they didn't know where they needed to go next."
The sergeant major, a 22-year veteran, said he just wanted to get to the site and get the guys out. From past experience, he could tell what was going through "those young guys' minds" by the sound of their voices on the radio.
As the friendly security force moved in, he said, there were a couple of situations where a few of the insurgents popped out. "They were trying to take out my brigade commander. They were going to take out our doc and a few of our soldiers; but we didn't let that happen," Riling said.
The group fought its way through withering enemy fire and linked up with the Marines. Riling said he then absorbed the Marines into his team, and they fought their way out. "Some of the guys were laying there wounded. They had gunshot wounds to their legs, and some of them were hurt bad," he said. "One guy was dead and lying out in the middle of the street. They didn't want to leave him. I respected that about the squad."
After Riling, Connor and their team evacuated the injured Marines and recovered the Marine squad leader's body, another Marine platoon in the area came under attack by insurgents. Riling and Connor witnessed Marine vehicles being fired on by an Iraqi insurgent armed with rocket-propelled grenades. Riling directed two Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the brigade's reserve into the fight to squelch the attacks.
They saw the insurgent run into a building and had one of the Bradleys knock down a fence surrounding the house. The building was heavily reinforced and had high brick and metal walls. Riling said he knew it was important to act fast, because his colonel and his troops were in a precarious position.
"I thought for sure that someone was going to come out of that house and just start spraying (AK-47 rifle fire)," he said. "I didn't want someone to come out and kill my commander and kill any of our soldiers."
The lead soldier on the door was Sgt. 1st Class Gibson, who was in charge of the colonel's physical-security detachment. Gibson was attempting to kick the door down but couldn't get it to budge. Riling said he was worried -- it was taking too much time. So the 6-feet, 2-inch Riling yelled at Gibson to move out of the way.
"As he moved out of the way, I just crashed through that door. I remember barreling through the door with my left shoulder, and I just knocked the door right off the hinges," said Riling, who weighs 198 pounds.
As a result, the insurgent hiding behind the door was mortally wounded and died.
In all, 12 Marines attached to the brigade lost their lives that day. Remarkably, none of the brigade's soldiers died, but many were wounded during the intense fighting.
Riling said he felt good his soldiers were able to accomplish their mission, but there is always some room for regret when it involves losing soldiers and Marines.
"I felt bad; I mean, we lost 12 Marines that day," he said. "It's very depressing, and it makes you think. You always say to yourself, 'What could you have done better?' In my mind, we did everything we could."
Riling said his actions that day were just those of a soldier doing his job.
"I don't claim to be a hero for getting this award. I don't want to be labeled as a hero. I felt I was just another soldier on the battlefield, doing my job, helping other soldiers and helping Marines," Riling explained.
Army Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, 4th Infantry Division commander, said Riling's actions clearly indicate the kind of a soldier Riling is and why he could not have picked a better senior noncommissioned officer to lead the division.
"I think the nation is lucky to have soldiers like him who are willing to put their lives on the line," said Thurman. "It's important to have professionals such as Command Sergeant Major Riling in our formation. He sets the example and is a role model. Courage is paramount with guys like him. He embodies all of the things that we want in a professional soldier. (He is) loyal, open, honest, trusting. That's the type of soldier that he is."
If there is any advice he can pass on to the division's soldiers as they begin to prepare for potential future deployments, Riling said, it is to take this war seriously. Soldiers must train as hard as they can and be as proficient in their warfighting skills as humanly possible, he said.
"Be an expert on your weapon. Be physically fit. Be ready to go, because the call could happen any time to go back to the fight," Riling said. "If you're not physically fit and mentally ready, and if you're not an expert at your weapon, you are going to lose somebody."
(Army Master Sgt. Eric Lobsinger is noncommissioned officer in charge of public affairs for the 4th Infantry Division.)