Valor Friday

| January 12, 2024

Brendan O’Connor

Brendan O’Connor’s military service is a tad unorthodox. He started as an officer, but became an enlisted man. Reminds me a bit of Michael Novosel.

Born in 1960, he came from a line of military men. His father was Mortimer O’Connor, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point in, Class of 1953. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before being killed in action in Vietnam in 1968. Mort was commanding 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, part of the 1st Infantry Division “The Big Red One” during the Tet Counteroffensive. He earned two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Bronze Star Medal for valor.

Mortimer’s uncle had also been an officer in The Big Red One. Also a West Pointer, Richard O’Connor too was a lieutenant colonel in the 1st Infantry Division. He was killed in action in 1943 during the Invasion of Sicily. He too earned a Silver Star.

Mort’s father, and Brendan’s grandfather, was William O’Connor, USMA Class of 1924. He saw service during World War II like his brother, before rising to the rank of brigadier general. I should have said “brothers” in the plural. William and Richard’s brothers were George O’Connor (USMA Class of ‘35) and Roderic O’Connor (USMA Class of ‘41). George eventually rose to lieutenant colonel and Roderic to full colonel, both in the US Air Force after serving through WWII.

With all of that tradition of service and sacrifice, it’s little surprise that Brendan followed in the enormous footsteps of the men in his bloodline. After high school he enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1978 and took ROTC as part of his education at Valley Forge Junior Military College. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Reserves in 1980.

He soon became a Green Beret in the Army Reserve, serving first as a platoon leader and then as a rifle company commander. In 1994 he resigned his commission to enlist in the active duty Army as a Special Forces medical sergeant.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the following decade, then-Staff Sergeant O’Connor went to war just as his forefathers had. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2005.

On 24 June 2006, O’Connor’s team, attached to an Afghan National Army unit numbering a few dozen men, was on a search and destroy mission when they stumbled into a well-planned and executed Taliban ambush. Suddenly surrounded by 200-250 enemy fighters, the Americans and their Afghan allies were outnumbered and immediately started taking casualties.

“And it’s like all hell breaks loose. Literally, all hell breaks loose,” Maj. Shef Ford, another Army Special Forces soldier with O’Connor’s team, told 60 Minutes. “The enemy is firing at all directions at us. And soldiers are trying to identify the positions and return fire. They had completely surrounded us and were firing at us with multiple [weapons] systems.”

Master Sergeant Thomas Maholic, one of the Green Beret team leaders, took O’Connor and a few other Special Forces operators forward to what they thought was the Taliban command post in a nearby cemetery. As they neared the enemy, the Taliban pulled back in what the Green Berets recognized as another sophisticated attempt to lure the Americans into a kill zone. Staff Sergeant Matthew Binney, Staff Sergeant Joe Fuerst, and an Afghan interpreter separated from the rest of the element to provide covering fire.

That three-man team was attacked by machine gun and RPG fire. Binney was struck in the back of his helmet. Rendered momentarily unconscious, he had a fractured skull but shook off the wounds to continue fighting. Fuerst was hit in the chest by an RPG. Luckily the round was a dud, but the blunt force trauma of the rocket’s impact had critically wounded him. When Binney moved to grab Fuerst and drag him to cover, another machine gun round tore through his shoulder. Binney later found a bullet hole in his Camelbak and six in his pants.

The Afghan interpreter Jacob knew they were about to be overrun. Capture meant death, after significant torture. He radioed for permission to ensure that none of them would be captured. He planned to kill the two wounded Americans and then himself, to prevent their capture and torture. Major Ford denied that request and told him help was on the way. The problem was, all of Ford’s men were thoroughly pinned down by the intense enemy fire.

O’Connor, the 45-year old medical sergeant, volunteered to lead a team of Afghan soldiers to retrieve his wounded comrades. He saw a shallow, 14-inch deep trench that he was going to use, even though it was within view of the enemy fire.

Initially, O’Connor was unable to get low enough, his vest filling with dirt as he crawled. “I actually pulled back to cover, to a covered position and removed my body armor,” O’Connor recounted to 60 Minutes. Doffing his body armor, he moved into the enemy fire totally unprotected. O’Connor’s Afghan comrades, who were to accompany him, were unable to join him due to the heavy and accurate enemy fire. He kept going. Alone.

For an hour and a half, O’Connor’s teammates watched as he moved forward. He only had to travel 90 yards, moving inch by agonizing inch. The Taliban machine gun fire was whizzing past him. His comrades could see the enemy bullets cutting the grass around him, but somehow not hitting him. Close air support fire was coming in at danger close ranges. O’Connor had even tied a piece of signal cloth to his back, so friendly aircraft could see his advance and put down covering fire.

Maholic watched from an overwatch position as O’Connor finished his crawl. Maholic was laying as much covering fire as he could, fending off a last ditch assault from the enemy on the valiant medic. Without Maholic’s fire, Binney and Fuerst would have been overrun and killed, or worse, captured. As it were, the Taliban were close enough that they were calling out to Jacob, taunting him.

O’Connor reached his wounded brothers, as Maholic was hit by enemy fire, killed instantly by a bullet to the head. O’Connor started to carry Fuerst and Binney to a position of safety. O’Connor moved the two men over three walls to a more secure building. While O’Connor carried him, Fuerst succumbed to his wounds. O’Connor had recovered Binney, but he was seriously injured.

The fight had now been going on for hours, with no sign of stopping. The situation was so dire that some of the men took time to write notes to their family saying goodbye. As night fell, Maholic’s death left O’Connor in command.

With Apache gunships and Air Force fighters providing close air support, the Green Berets and the pilots hatched a plan. The aircraft could see a safe route for escape, but it was narrow. In order to guide the besieged men, battered and tired, out of this hellscape, they would “light up” the path with their infrared targeting laser. This laser would be visible only through night vision goggles that the Special Forces soldiers were wearing.

O’Connor once more led the charge, guiding his men 600 meters through this treacherous path, illuminated only by the beam from above. The Apaches poured fire into anything that wasn’t following the guiding light. In all, the battle waged for more than 17 hours before O’Connor led what remained of his men to safety.

For his gallantry under fire, O’Connor would receive the Distinguished Service Cross. At the time this was only the second award of the medal since the Vietnam War. Maholic received a posthumous Silver Star. Silver Stars were also awarded to Ford and Binney, as well as Abram Hernandez, another Green Beret who was on overwatch with Maholic.

By the time O’Connor received the DSC he was a master sergeant. He’d retire in 2016 as a sergeant major, having been in service for 36 years. He’s married and they have three sons and two daughters.

When getting the medal pinned to his chest, O’Connor was humble. “I’ve never been more honored, but this medal belongs to my whole team,” He said. “Every member was watching out for the other, inspiring each other, and for some, sacrificing for each other. We all fought hard, and it could just as easily be any one of them standing up here getting it pinned on; every one of them is a hero.”

Category: Army, Distinguished Service Cross, Green Beret, Historical, Valor, We Remember

18 Comments
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lawrence todd

i know a enlisted man who becomes am officer is called a mustang but what do you call an officer who became an enlisted man not from disciplanary action

SFC D

One ballsy son of a bitch is what you call them.

Last edited 5 months ago by SFC D
Green Thumb

Word.

STSC(SW/SS)

Gave up the O and became a badass Joe.

Jumpmaster

I am in awe of men like SGM O’Connor.

26Limabeans

Wow.
Thanks Mason.

Prior Service

Wow. Great read. Thanks for posting.

I can only recall seeing one person go O to E and as I recall, he was RIF’d as a captain or maybe major and rejoined as E. With a doctorate in history, he was our history instructor as a sergeant first class when I was at my branch’s basic course.

SFAlphaGeek

Now would be a good time to mention SGT Roy A. Wood. He was a MAJ, a board certified emergency medicine physician, and the Bn surgeon for 3/20the SFG(A). When two companies out of 3/20 were activated and deployed to Afghanistan in 2003, but not the Bn flag, Roy resigned his commission and went over as an 18D. He was killed in a auto accident while on an operation supporting UAE SOF.

Martinjmpr

Officer-to-enlisted is not as rare as you might think. I probably met a dozen or so in my time. One of my drill sergeants at Fort Benning in 1980 had formerly been a captain.

Typically they were commissioned during wartime (for my service that would have been the Vietnam war) and then after the war they were “non-selected” for promotion and then given the option to either be discharged entirely or move to the enlisted ranks. Many of them had over 5 years of service as an officer so they opted to stay in as NCOs.

After 20 they could retire at the highest rank they successfully held so they might make it to SFC and then retire as a captain or a major.

In fact, I even met one guy who had served in all three rank structures: He was commissioned through ROTC, got RIF’d as a captain and became an E-5. After he got promoted to E-6 he applied to become a warrant and when I met him he was a CW3.

Dennis - not chevy

I worked with a couple of them who were successful as NCOs – they got into AFSC’s that were nowhere near the jobs they had as officers, worked hard, and made rank. They received well deserved respect from their fellow NCO’s and were well liked.

I was thinking the worst one was the former Captain who was RIF’d to E-4. She got an AFSC that was related to the job she had as an officer. She wouldn’t wear her Sgt stripes so I had no idea what rank she held the day we got into an argument (I was an E-3 at the time); I got chewed out by the OIC of my section for being disrespectful to her. Finally we got a new squadron commander that told her if she wanted to appear as an E-1 he’d make her an E-1. I’m sure it’s needless to say we E-types did not throw her a party when she retired from active duty.

When I did make E-4 I was on a detail at the bomb range. My buddies warned me the work was strenuous, the temperature was in three digits, and the Captain running the show was an overbearing and arrogant martinet. What none of knew is he was passed over for Major three times and was about to become a Sgt. There was a delay in transferring him to another base so we crossed paths from time to time. I enjoyed saying, “How you doing, buddy?” to him when he was used to getting saluted. It was a little thing, but it felt so good.

SFAlphaGeek

Saw that happen in the other direction. I was in the Army Reserve early un my career, and our company SGM had gotten a hard-on for a guy who had just joined as an E-5. We showed up for drill one weekend, and the SGM was waiting for him to walk in to give him something unpleasant to do. Unfortunately for the SGM, when the guy walked in, he was an O-3. He had applied to “unresign” his commission, and the paperwork had just come through.

Wilson

I am humbled reading about this exemplary soldier.

KoB

Just….DAAAYUUUM! Surprised This Hero could crawl dragging them Big Brass Ones.

When getting the medal pinned to his chest, O’Connor was humble. “I’ve never been more honored, but this medal belongs to my whole team,” He said. “Every member was watching out for the other, inspiring each other, and for some, sacrificing for each other. We all fought hard, and it could just as easily be any one of them standing up here getting it pinned on; every one of them is a hero.” Testify!

Great story, Mason…again! Thanks!

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

CLANK CLANK go his Big Brass Ones.
And as we know, the True Heroes are the The Professionals, The Quiet Ones. As opposed to the Phony Braggarts.

2banana

A Green Beret team and partner nation forces stumbles into a well planned complex ambush with zero intel or available fire support for hours…

We keep making the same mistakes.

USMC Steve

That should not be all that surprising. The Taliboobs were very decentralized, and a guerrilla/irregular force. They didn’t operate like the Soviet army, or the Red Chinese army. Much more informal and all.

Slow Joe

Damn. He was 8 when his dad died in combat. I can’t imagine the pain.
True hero.

Honor and Courage

Thanks for sharing this story. I also served in the 1/2 Infantry 67&68. On another Note: I Processed the paperwork for a 03 Captain retired who changed his rank back to CSM for the pay difference. The request was granted by G1 Dept Army.

Last edited 4 months ago by Honor and Courage