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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

His Corps Value Was Bravery

Chris Adlesperger's family, shocked to learn of his heroics in Iraq, later saw how it all made sense. In death, he's been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

October 03, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Albuquerque — On Nov. 10, 2004, in 30 minutes of close combat, Marine Pfc. Christopher Adlesperger, a soft-spoken, religious young man who loved poetry and art, attacked an enemy stronghold in Fallouja, Iraq, and killed at least 11 insurgents.

He killed them with his M-16 and with his grenade launcher. He killed them at such close range he could hear the blood gurgling in their mouths and noses.

He killed insurgents who were heavily armed and probably high on drugs -- and who had just killed his close friend, Lance Cpl. Erick Hodges.

He protected two wounded squad members from attack and saved innumerable Marines.

When it was over, Adlesperger's face had been bloodied by shrapnel and he had bullet holes in the sleeve and collar of his uniform. He refused to be evacuated until Hodges' body was recovered.

"It was a tremendous bit of fighting," said Col. Patrick Malay, the battalion commander. "He was a quiet kid, but he was remarkable. He was one tough bastard."

For his bravery, Adlesperger is among a handful of Marines who have been nominated for the Medal of Honor in Iraq.

A nomination does not ensure that an award will be made. No Marine has been awarded the Medal of Honor for combat occurring since Vietnam.

The nation's highest recognition of bravery is reserved for those who have shown conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. In fact, two-thirds of the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines since the beginning of World War II have been posthumous.

If an award is made to Adlesperger, his too will be posthumous.

A month after the firefight for which he has been nominated, Adlesperger led Marines in storming another building where insurgents were hiding. He was shot in the heart and died instantly.

Only after his death did family members here learn of his bravery. At first they were shocked -- this was the same person who had once cringed at the thought of shooting birds on a hunting trip. Then they recognized in the details of the firefight the determined youth they knew and loved.

"That was Chris. Whatever he did, he always went in with the idea that nobody was going to beat him, nobody," said Dennis Adlesperger, 53, his uncle.

*

Fear -- and Courage

Centuries of warfare have not entirely answered the question of why some fighters, in times of maximum chaos and danger, act in a heroic fashion, putting concern for their own lives in abeyance.

For a military force dedicated to ground combat such as the Marine Corps, the issue is of surpassing importance. How do you train young men to put the needs of the mission above their own instinct for survival?

Bing West, a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam and now the premier chronicler of the Marines in Iraq, estimates that even in the Marine Corps, no more than one in 10 shows a talent above his training for taking the fight to the enemy and killing.

Much of the Marine philosophy about bravery can be found in the classic study "The Anatomy of Courage," published in 1945 by Lord Moran, a British physician who served at the front during World War I and then as physician to Winston Churchill for 25 years. The book is on a Marine Corps reading list given to sergeants on up through captains.

Moran's thesis is that men fight not just for survival or patriotism but in response to strong leadership -- and because they have grown to identify with their group so tightly that any threat to the group is seen as intolerable.

Courage, Moran suggests, is a moral quality that comes from an unwillingness to quit. Fear, he says, is a critical part of it. Without fear, he argues, there is no courage; fear provides the energy, the resolve.

All new Marines are asked to read C.S. Forester's novel "Rifleman Dodd," about a young British infantry soldier who becomes separated from his company during a battle in rugged terrain.

Weaving his way through enemy territory, Dodd comes across a disheveled man babbling incoherently in the forest. For several days he tries to protect and guide him.

But then he realizes that he must leave the man behind so that he can find his way back to his company. The moral is clear: A soldier cannot deny his fear, but he must learn to leave it behind and join the fight.

In boot camp in San Diego, one of Adlesperger's drill instructors quickly instilled the reality of combat as he scanned more than 100 recruits sitting attentively on the exercise field and picked 10 at random to stand up.

"When your company goes to Iraq, this is the number of Marines who won't be coming home alive," the DI barked.

He ordered 10 more to stand. "And this is how many more will die if you don't start listening to me."

Normally self-confident, Adlesperger sounded shaken when he told his mother about the lecture.

"Chris said the DI scared him, but it helped him realize what Iraq was going to be like, that he was going to have to learn to protect his Marines," said Annette Griego, his mother.

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