It's hard to imagine a man jumping on top of parapets to draw enemy rocket, grenade, and machine gun fire away from his buddies. But Marine 1stSgt Donnie Brazeal did just that in April, 2005 during what many say was one of the largest fire fights of the Iraq War.
Brazeal, now retired after serving 23 years in the Marine Corps, served four back-to-back deployments. One of his last deployments was to Iraq from January to September of 2005.
While the attacks were endless, one stands out from all the rest; insurgents hit Brazeal's company, stationed at a combat outpost, on the morning of April 11, 2005. Brazeal said his reason for risking life and limb on that day was simple.
"Those are my sons," he said, pointing to a group of sergeants and corporals who attended his award ceremony at the Naval Academy on January 27, 2007. "I was bringing young Marines home. We fought every day, and they (young sergeants and corporals from his unit) are the real heroes."
"My father taught me never to run away from a fight, and my mother taught me to help my fellow man," said Brazeal, who was raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
On April 11, mortar rounds were hitting within five to 10 yards of each other, witnesses said, which meant the attack was well planned. As the mortar shells, rockets and grenades rained down, the Marines found themselves being hit directly with machine gun and small arms fire.
Brazeal saw one group of Marines that was pinned down, and he and another Marine pulled out two anti-tank missiles and mounted the wall they had been using for a barrier. That maneuver drew fire on Brazeal, but allowed the other Marines to regroup and return fire.
Conventional weapons weren't the only dangers in that pitched fight that lasted seven hours. At one point, a dump truck headed straight for the compound, and the Marines knew they were about to be hit by a suicide bomber. They stopped the truck, which exploded within 40 yards off their camp. Then came another vehicle, an ambulance loaded with explosives. And after that, a fire truck.
"They detonated a fire truck-full of explosives 75 meters away; it is a miracle it didn't blow out our insides," said Maj. Frank Diorio, who was a captain at the time and commander of the company.
The explosions flattened all of the buildings, Diorio said, and wounded some Marines, but they suffered no fatalities.
Perhaps the best testament to what Brazeal's men thought of him was that two of the Marines in the April 11 attack, 1stSgt. John Harman and Sgt. Josh Hopper, who had just returned from a subsequent combat tour in Iraq, gladly gave up their first weekend home to travel from Jacksonville to Annapolis for the surprise ceremony.
"It was leadership from the front," Harman said admiringly of Brazeal's style. "That's why the whole company loved him and Capt. Diorio."
Brazeal was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor. His award citation noted that during one of the company's many fire fights, Brazeal knocked Diorio to the ground and threw his body over his commander to protect him from enemy mortar fire.
"First Sgt. Brazeal is a Marine's Marine; he is Gunny Highway times 10," Diorio said referring to a Clint Eastwood character who fought at Heartbreak Ridge. "He feared his God, but that's about it."
Excerpts from article by Earl Kelly, Staff Writer; HometownAnnapolis.com, Jan. 28, 2007