Silver Star paratroopers recount combat action
By David Bedard
Spcs. Ryan Chester and Robert Parson don’t describe themselves as heroes, despite the fact their actions earned both paratroopers the Silver Star for heroism in Afghanistan, during their year-long deployment with 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
U.S. Army Alaska Commanding General, Maj. Gen. William J. Troy, pinned Silver Star medals on the Soldiers’ chests during a June 22 ceremony, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s Pershing Field.
Chester was part of a mounted 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry Regiment combat patrol near Moshak, Afghanistan, when his convoy was ambushed by at least 30 insurgents.
Without line of sight to the rest of the platoon, Specialist Chester, manning the gun turret, was forced to defend his crippled Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle against effective rocket-propelled grenade and light machine gun fire, using the vehicle’s M2 .50-caliber machine gun and several M4 carbines to kill and suppress the enemy.
Parson’s award narrative details how the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment infantryman braved effective enemy fire in an effort to extract his wounded squad leader, Staff Sgt. Kurt Curtiss, during a clearing operation at the Sar Hawza medical clinic, Paktika Province.
Despite being hit with enemy automatic weapons fire twice, and being wounded in the arm by a grenade, Parson took up a position making himself vulnerable to enemy fire to provide suppressing fires while his squad mates pulled Curtiss to a safe location.
Curtiss succumbed to his wounds.
With his assignment to Alaska and deployment to Afghanistan, Chester said, he has come a long way from his roots.
The paratrooper grew up in the town of Big Sandy, Tenn., which has a population of 518, according to the 2000 Census.
After attending the K-12 Big Sandy School, Chester attended the Tennessee Technology Center, McKenzie, Tenn., to study automotive mechanics.
After several years working in the automotive industry, he enlisted in the Army to be an airborne infantryman.
“I joined the military because jobs were starting to get scarce,” he said.
Parson grew up in the much larger community of Texas City, Texas, with a 2000 Census population of 41,521.
He earned his GED, embarking on a number of odd jobs, including house framing, before he enlisted in the Army to better provide for his wife and four children.
“I joined the Army because I needed to get away from where I was at, and do better things because of my family,” Parson said.
Though both were assigned to Fort Richardson as their first duty assignment, the paratroopers have varying views of life in the northern state. Chester said he chafes at the long, cold winters while Parson said he discovered wonderment in the 49th State.
“I really had never seen snow or mountains before, because I’m from south Texas,” Parson said with a grin. “So I was kind of excited. It was a new place and I never got out of Texas much.”
The paratroopers shipped out to Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan in February 2009, where the brigade provided security for and partnered with the governments of Paktika, Paktiya and Khowst provinces.
On July 6, 2009, Chester faced more than a dozen insurgents determined to destroy his vehicle with RPG fire in an effort to compromise the MRAP structure.
When a round struck his ammunition canister, Chester was knocked out of the turret and was peppered with shrapnel, resulting in what he called minor wounds which marred his face, hands and arms with ballpoint pen tip-sized fragments.
Despite his wounds, the infantryman said he stayed in the turret because of his Deltoid and Axillary Protection System armor, worn by turret gunners in accordance with standard operating procedures.
“I figured I had a better chance of surviving something if I got hit with the extra armor on than they did,” he explained.
Chester said his fellow crew members helped by handing him their carbines and ammunition between machine gun reloads.
“I had to swap out with several M4s,” he said. “As I would empty a magazine, I would hand it down and they would hand another one back up to continue firing.”
All told, Chester fought off the enemy for 25 minutes straight, and he is credited with saving the lives of his crew and other members of his platoon.
“I did what any other member of my platoon would have done in the same situation,” he said with a serious gaze. “It’s what we’re trained to do, day in and day out. We’re supposed to do it without even thinking.”
During his efforts to reach his squad leader, Parson said his conduct depended on a simple decision.
“It comes down to either you do it or not do it,” he said. “You don’t have time to think when there’s a group of people with automatic weapons 10 feet away from you trying to take your life.”
The Texan said he was driven by a fierce loyalty for the noncommissioned officer who prepared him for combat.
“Sergeant Curtiss meant a lot to me,” he said.
“When I first got here, he showed me everything,” Parson said, explaining Curtiss taught him what to bring on deployment, items ranging from parachute chord to baby wipes. “Just small things that only a veteran would know.
“When he went down it was like...” the infantryman paused. “We were getting him out. I was getting him out. It was going to happen and that was the only way I could think.”
After the first Soldier in the door stumbled, Parson said he was left to face the insurgents full on, receiving two bullet strikes to his chest.
“It felt like a mule kicked me in the chest and on the side,” he said. “My momentum was gone. I’m getting in and I stopped dead in my tracks.”
Parson said he rolled out of his way to what he thought was good cover, carrying out a self check where he found a little blood.
“Luckily, my armor did its job,” he said.
His position wasn’t as sound as he first believed, Parson recalled. He was cut off from the rest of his platoon, forcing him to come to grips with his precarious situation.
“It was time to decide,” he said. “Am I going to sit here and be a casualty, or am I going to make a move and do something?”
He said he got up, returned fire and linked back up with his platoon, later providing cover fire which exposed him but allowed for the extraction of Curtiss.
Amazingly, Parson was never evacuated to a combat support hospital for his wounds. Instead, he received a clean bill of health from unit physicians.
“Doctors came over and looked at me,” he said. “They put a little something over it, and I went back out there and pulled guard.”
Like Specialist Chester, Specialist Parson said he feels his actions were nothing remarkable.
“I don’t think I’m a hero,” he said plainly. “There was nothing special about it. It’s just what I do, and I think that any paratrooper that was in my position would have done the same.
“I didn’t do it by myself,” he continued. “I want people to know I wasn’t there by myself. I had a platoon of men with me, good men who did a lot that day. I don’t know why I stand out. It’s what I was trained to do. I did what I was taught.”
Both paratroopers expressed their loyalty to their brigade and their pride in being airborne Soldiers.
“I really like how the brigade functions as a whole,” Chester said. “I don’t think any other unit has as much camaraderie as we do, and jumping out of planes is just fun.”
“As far as being a paratrooper, it’s a lot to live up to,” Parson said. “All the paratroopers before us in other wars like Vietnam, World War II, those were the men of men. It’s a long line that is hard to live up to sometimes, because you feel like you’re not doing enough.
“Being a paratrooper sets you apart and I guess that’s what makes it special,” he said. “It’s why I wanted it. That and there’s nothing better than jumping.”