The 2014 movie Lone Survivor, based on the book by Marcus Luttrell, brought the story of Lieutenant Michael Murphy to the masses. During Operation Red Wings, Murphy and three other SEALs (one of whom was Luttrell) had been discovered by civilians, spared them, and were later engaged by enemy forces. Murphy and two other SEALs – Daniel Dietz and Matthew Axelson – were killed, as were members of a quick-reaction force when their MH-47 Chinook was shot down. Murphy later received the Medal of Honor posthumously, while Axelson and Dietz received the Navy Cross posthumously. Luttrell also received the Navy Cross.
But fourteen years prior to that operation, another American special operations unit, this one an Operational Detachment – Alpha (ODA or A-Team) of Special Forces personnel that was commanded by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Richard Balwanz, found itself in the same situation Murphy and his SEALs faced in Afghanistan during Operation Desert Storm.
As Balwanz related in Al Santoli’s oral history, Leading the Way, after his eight-man team of Green Berets, known as ODA 525, had settled into a hide site on the morning of February 24, 1991, they were discovered by children from a nearby village. Balwanz would later say, that despite the ease with which his decision would be second-guessed, he’d decided that his team was “not going to shoot children. Or unarmed civilians.” The children alerted adults, who later sent word to Saddam’s forces. Within hours, Iraqi forces had arrived on the scene, and the Green Berets soon found themselves in a desperate situation.
Balwanz had not been idle. He ordered the destruction of the team’s classified equipment – keeping only two radios: One to communicate with the incoming air support, the other to talk with the headquarters of the XVIII Airborne Corps. The Green Berets also took positions to get ready for the fight that they knew was coming – against as many as 200 Iraqi troops.
Balwanz ordered his men to set their M16 rifles to fire on semi-automatic to preserve ammunition. At one point in the firefight, he noticed two of his men waving good-bye to each other. But ODA 525 would manage to hold, thanks to the skills of the elite troops in that unit.
“Every time a gun fired, an Iraqi dropped,” Balwanz recounted. The Green Berets’ marksmanship was proving crucial – prompting the Iraqis to discard the notion of charging ODA 525’s position. Instead, most of them settled for spraying fire from their AK-47 rifles, but some, described by Balwanz as “Bedouins,” had long-barreled rifles – and rounds from those were impacting close to the Green Berets. The Iraqis were also getting reinforcements.
They were not the only ones. F-16s from the South Carolina Air National Guard had arrived. However, the radio that ODA 525 needed to communicate with them was damaged. One pilot decided to have the planes under him hit a communications facility. The Iraqis began fleeing when the bombs hit the target. Balwanz eventually was able to contact the planes, and began to call in air strikes. The cluster bombs began to make short work of their targets. As darkness fell, Balwanz’s team improvised a means to help the F-16 pilots locate their position using a mirror.
Eventually, the team was recovered by a MH-60 Blackhawk from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. While the fight had taken hours, none of the Green Berets were killed or wounded in that engagement. Balwanz would receive the Silver Star for his actions on that day. Other members of ODA 525 received Bronze Stars.
Like Murphy, Balwanz made the decision to spare civilians who compromised his team’s location. Like Murphy, Balwanz’s unit faced overwhelming odds. Like Murphy, Balwanz fought to keep his men alive. But unlike Murphy, Balwanz’s tale of valor hasn’t been as well-known or recognized. The Department of Defense has looked back at valor from past wars to award the Medal of Honor to deserving heroes who hadn’t received the recognition they deserved. Based on his actions on February 24, 1991, Richard Balwanz clearly appears to be one such hero.