CAMP TAJI, Iraq – When Matthew Schilling thinks back to the mission that earned him a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor, the images in his mind are crystal clear.
Schilling, a squad leader for Troop C, 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, remembers nearly every detail of what happened Feb. 16 during the hour-long ambush at Falahat, Iraq, in vivid color. He relates them as though what he did was ‘no big deal,’ he says, preferring to give the glory to his Soldiers and his platoon leader who also lived through the experience.
The mission began simply enough, said Schilling, a 1994 Houston graduate who is enlisted at Fort Leonard Wood.
Schilling’s platoon was to go with the Iraqi police on boats to patrol a river near Falahat and keep the waterways clear of possible insurgents trafficking weapons. Tips received indicated that insurgents were using the river to transport weapons and gain access to areas from which they could launch attacks on civilians, Iraqi security forces and coalition troops. The plan also included stopping and checking houses near the banks in a search for weapons and suspected insurgents.
Four boats were on the patrol with Schilling’s being the lead boat. He was joined by four Iraqi police officers, his platoon leader and two of his soliders.
Having gone only two kilometers down the river, Schilling’s boat and the other patrol boats were soon hit by machine gun fire from a very large, well-organized enemy ambush involving nearly 100 insurgent fighters, he said.
“We were coming down the river during the day, and whoever saw us had set up a nice long ambush with machine guns on both ends and a lot of people with weapons in between,” Schilling recalled. “Once they started shooting, we returned fire but could not sustain it because there was too much heavy machine gun fire.”
The insurgent forces fired at the boats from houses and roof tops on one of the banks of the river.
“As soon as our lieutenant gave the order to turn the boat around, he was shot in the arm and the IP driving the boat was shot in the stomach,” Schilling said. “When he went down he yanked the boat wheel and we sailed off into an island and crashed.
As enemy rounds peppered the boat, pieces of shrapnel flew up hitting Schilling in the mouth and flying at others in the boat as well. Another Iraqi police officer was also wounded in the ensuing gunfire.
“Our boat sounded like a metal shed when it’s raining,: said 1st Lt. John Dolan of Maple Grove, Minn.
Making it onto the banks of the island, Schilling organized his troops and assisted the IPs, sending them into the reeds of the island for cover and helped his soldiers set up a defensive perimeter, while continuously under fire.
Schilling returned to the boat by himself so that he could gather up extra weapons, ammo and other needed gear, running back and forth from the boat to where his soldiers were.
Once he had all the supplies out of the boat, Schilling threw a grenade into the boat to damage it and keep it out of insurgent hands as well as to create a distraction.
“While we moved into the reeds, we weren’t receiving as much fire and as we kept moving,” Schilling said. “They (the enemy forces) were focusing more on the boat burning.”
Eventually, while still under fire, they found a clearing, set up a better fighting position and treated their wounded. The area also served as a place to wait for evacuation helicopters.
While they waited, Schilling and two others continued fighting as Dolan called in for aviation assets from the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division based on Camp Taji.
“Communications were a little sketchy,” said Schilling. “The lieutenant had lost a lot of blood and about all he could do was call in to get us some air evacuation and medical evacuation helicopters.”
It was at this time that the enemy began sweeping the area.
“I was becoming dizzy from blood loss and my sleeves were just soaked in blood and my arm was turning purple,” said Dolan, who in addition to his wounded arm received a softball-sized bruise to his ribs from a bullet hitting the plating on his vest armor. “We thought we were going to get over run. We were 100 percent sure that we were going to die. That’s why no one freaked out, we just said, ‘”et’s do our job and take these guys out.'”
Once the helicopters were in sight, Schilling signaled them.
“The enemy shifted their fire back to us, and that’s when all hell broke loose,” said Schilling, whose cheek was grazed by a bullet while at the same time his rifle sling was shot off and his pants were sporting a couple of fresh bullet holes, fortunately not accompanied by wounds. “Soon though, the helicopters were on their way and it was good for us because we were running low on ammo. Once the birds arrived, the enemy fled.”
Schilling said he takes the incident in stride. He never intended to ever be called a hero for his actions that day.
“I was just doing what I was supposed to do,” he said. “All of our guys were doing what they were supposed to do and they’re a great bunch of guys. It only took a little bit of orchestration.
“Luckily, we took extra ammo with us that day, and I really believe that someone was watching over us.”
Dolan said he was pleased with his soldiers and the way that Schilling took charge during the mission.
“I’m very proud of my men, how they handled everything-all of them reacted courageously,” said Dolan. “Staff Sgt. Schilling receiving the Bronze Star with V [device] was well-deserved and I have no problem calling him a hero.
“He’s really one of the most humble guys I’ve ever met who never wants any attention for himself. He gives all the credit to his soldiers.”
In all, according to Schilling, 22 enemy fighters were killed in the engagement while more than 50 insurgents were wounded. Schilling said that the Iraqi police officer shot in the stomach while driving the patrol boat later died of complications from his wounds. No other Iraqi security force personnel or U.S. Soldiers were killed in the ambush.
– Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division Public Affairs