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Honoring a Marine Who Braved the Line of Fire

Carlos Gomez-Perez is awarded a Silver Star for trying to save a wounded buddy despite being shot himself in a Fallouja firefight.

April 13, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — They were three young Marines far from home in a violent place: the immigrant from the Philippines, the sometimes wild kid from Texas and the new U.S. citizen from Mexico.

When bravery and up-from-the-ranks leadership were needed that day in Fallouja, they did not hesitate.

In a short ceremony Wednesday, the last of the three -- Carlos Gomez-Perez -- received the same honor as the others: the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest citation for bravery.

Gomez-Perez and other Marines were hunkered down in a bullet-riddled neighborhood of Fallouja when hundreds of insurgents attacked from three directions -- one of the boldest assaults insurgents have mounted during three years of war. At one point, the two sides were about 20 yards apart, hurling grenades at each other.

Lance Cpl. Thomas Adametz, a native of the Philippines, grabbed a machine gun and began firing at the charging enemy, the weapon becoming so hot it etched his fingerprints into the metal.

Stepping into the line of fire for a better aim, Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin, from Amarillo, Texas, was firing his machine gun and throwing grenades even as he was hit repeatedly in the chest by AK-47 fire.

Gomez-Perez rushed to help his mortally wounded friend. He pulled him from the line of fire, cradled him in his arms and tried desperately to stop the bleeding.

Hit in the cheek and right shoulder by an armor-piercing round, Gomez-Perez continued to fire his M-16 and throw grenades with his left hand until he was overcome by loss of blood.

Navy corpsman Jason Duty remembers Gomez-Perez's fury at having to be evacuated. "He was bleeding so bad, but he yelled at me: 'Get the

Last spring Adametz was awarded the Silver Star for his actions that day, April 26, 2004. In the summer, Austin's posthumous medal was presented to his parents.

And on Wednesday, it was Gomez-Perez's turn.

He was a lance corporal in Fallouja and later promoted to corporal before being medically retired because of his wounds. Gomez-Perez, 24, has undergone repeated surgeries and months of arduous rehabilitation to repair the damage done by a round that tore a chunk from his shoulder the size of a soda can.

He hopes to find a career in law enforcement. But thoughts of Austin are never far away.

"He's the one who died because I couldn't save him," he said. "I think about him every day. What could I have done differently? I should have done more."

If Gomez-Perez feels he did not do enough that day, his superiors disagree.

"Gomez-Perez literally took a bullet to save his brothers," said Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, who was the battalion commander during the deployment. "He couldn't save them all, but he was determined to try."

Austin was the only Marine with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division to die that day. Of 34 other members of the company involved in the fight, 17 were wounded before the insurgents were pushed back and the Marines called for an airstrike.

Whether the Marines were in danger of being overrun is a matter of debate, but Gomez-Perez had already decided what he would do if the insurgents got closer. "I knew I'd rather die than surrender; that's what kept us fighting," he said.

Just days before deploying to Iraq in 2004 for the second time, Gomez-Perez had taken the oath of citizenship in a ceremony at Camp Pendleton.

His parents, wife and 4-year-old son were present to see him receive the Silver Star from Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division. Gomez-Perez chose Wednesday for the ceremony because it was the anniversary of another battle in which two buddies were killed.

Sgt. Maj. William Skiles, who was Echo Company's first sergeant during the attack and helped evacuate Austin and other wounded Marines, said no one should be surprised at how hard the Marines fought in Fallouja.

"We teach Marines to survive," he said.

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