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Face of Defense: Soldier Hopes His Story Instills Sense of Reality

By Army Capt. Joseph Sanfilippo
Special to American Forces Press Service

VICENZA, Italy, July 1, 2009 – Even as Army Staff Sgt. Conrad Begaye relived the firefight that took the lives of his fellow soldiers, and even as he was awarded the military’s third-highest honor for valor yesterday, his thoughts were on his comrades.

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Army Staff Sgt. Conrad Begaye stands before fellow soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, during a ceremony in Vicenza, Italy, June 30, 2009. Begaye was awarded the Silver Star for his valorous actions during an enemy ambush Nov. 9, 2007, in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. U.S. Army photo by Capt. Joseph Sanfilippo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Begaye, a Navajo from Black Canyon City, Ariz., said he wants the story of his actions in Afghanistan to help younger soldiers understand the importance of training, leadership and motivation. For troops eager to see combat, he said, he hopes his story instills a sense of the reality of war.

"It should open their eyes. A firefight is a life-altering experience - one that I'm still living through," Begaye said following a June 30 ceremony here in which he received the Silver Star. "Soldiers should understand … this is real life, and people do die."

On Nov. 9, 2007, Begaye, an Airborne Ranger with the 503rd Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion, was part of a unit that had just met with local leaders in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. They were hiking along rugged terrain when his squad, his platoon's headquarters sections and a squad of Afghan soldiers began taking fire from enemy positions above.

Pinned down at first, Begaye was struck in the arm while returning fire and directing his men. Begaye bounded over a cliff, calling to his troops to follow him down the rocky slope to find cover.

Keeping his composure against overwhelming odds, Begaye directed and encouraged his fellow soldiers under heavy fire. One paratrooper had been shot in both legs and was still taking fire. Begaye called out to him to play dead, knowing the enemy would shift their fire away if they thought the soldier was killed -- quick thinking that likely helped to save that soldier's life.

Ignoring his own injuries, Begaye moved a wounded soldier to a nearby cave to protect him from enemy fire. Using a radio, he called his higher headquarters and directed mortar fire onto enemy positions - essentially ending the battle. Then he motivated a soldier to organize a defensive perimeter of Afghan soldiers to prevent their unit from being harassed or overrun.

Twenty-one months later, with his comrades standing quietly on the parade ground behind him, Begaye listened as Maj. Gen. William B. Garrett III, commander of U.S. Army Africa, spoke here, where Begaye began his service 10 years ago.

"Today, we honor a noncommissioned officer whose bold actions turned the tide of battle and saved the day, … [and] whose courage under fire and fierce loyalty to his men still astounds us all," Garrett said. "Outnumbered, wounded, and initially pinned down in the kill zone of an enemy ambush -- he didn't hesitate to leap forward, literally, and take charge of the fight."

Garrett spoke of the "warrior ethos" that guides soldiers: place the mission first, never accept defeat, never quit, and never leave a fallen comrade.

"These are just words to some people," Garrett said. "But the warrior ethos is a way of life to Staff Sergeant Begaye. Amazing acts of bravery and valor were commonplace that grim day. But this morning, we recognize Staff Sergeant Begaye for his courage - and we are thankful for the opportunity to serve with such a man."

After the ceremony, Begaye's wife, Air Force Staff Sgt. Idellia Beletso, a flight medic based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, hugged her husband. Hundreds of red-bereted paratroopers lined up to shake Begaye's hand, many of whom served with him in combat.

"There are people who have passed on that deserve this," said Begaye, who served three combat tours. "There were five men who died. I'll accept and wear it in honor of them, not for my actions, but for theirs."

Begaye said he would have preferred a simple handshake or a pat on the back. After all, he said, infantrymen don't fight for medals, they fight for each other. That's why Begaye felt grateful to have soldiers from his unit, Chosen Company, behind him on the parade field during the ceremony.

"What happened there is something I think about every day,” Begaye said. “It's not easy to forget about."

(Army Capt. Joseph Sanfilippo serves with the 503rd Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion public affairs office.)

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