MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- “The President of the United States of America…has awarded the Silver Star to Captain Brian G. Cillessen, United States Marine Corps. For gallantry in action while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom…,” read the citation for an Aztec, N.M., Marine here, April 20.
The Silver Star Medal is the fourth highest military decoration awarded to service members. It replaced the Citation Star established by Congress in July 1918. The Citation Star was a silver star device pinned to the World War I Victory Medal for those who had been cited for extreme heroism or valor. In July 1932 the Silver Star Medal was approved to replace the Citation Star. The original Citation Star was incorporated into the center of the Silver Star Medal.
Cillessen received the award for actions Jan. 23, 2005, while serving as an embedded trainer and Marine advisor for the Afghan National Army Commandos. He was a member of Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 143, Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, Office of Military Cooperation, Afghanistan, while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Cillessen and three other U.S. servicemembers were embedded with 2nd Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade of the Afghan National Army Commandos, when they were ambushed.
“We had recovered a weapons cache from a remote village,” said Cillessen, company commander, Company C, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, as he recalled the events leading up to the ambush. “The enemy had a well-planned ambush on our egress. They knew exactly where to hit us.”
A volley of rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire disabled the lead vehicle. Cillessen quickly directed the immediate action of the Afghan soldiers around him in what became a four-hour long fire fight.
“There was no place to take cover,” the 1990 New Mexico Military Institute, Roswell, N.M., graduate recalled. “We were caught between an incline and a river.”
The men around Cillessen began to suppress the enemy immediately. They changed their established procedures and decided to stay and fight instead of leaving the battle when they got the chance.
“In the first five to ten minutes we felt confident of our fire superiority and our ability to leave the kill zone with only a few causalities,” said Cillessen, a 1998 University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo., graduate. “Usually a fire fight would last anywhere from five seconds to five minutes.”
That quickly changed when the U.S. and Afghan troops experienced an increased volume of fire from the rear. They continued to suppress the enemy and Cillessen called in close air support. A few of the Afghani soldiers’ actions stood out to Cillessen as he remembered the events of that afternoon more than two years ago. One was a shining example of leadership to the men around him.
“Sergeant Abdullah coordinated machine gun fire and coordinated my fire as I began to engage targets with my M-203,” Cillessen continued. “We engaged each of the seven or eight positions systematically. I noticed Abdullah was hit, but I didn’t realize how bad it was at first.”
Abdullah was hit in the left femoral artery. Cillessen noticed how distraught the Afghan soldiers became and reacted quickly in an attempt to save the sergeant’s life.
“I put a tourniquet on his leg,” explained Cillessen, who joined the Corps in 1993 as a machine gunner. “He was the bravest one out there. He led his soldiers the way they were supposed to be led and inspired me.”
During the fire fight, four men were wounded in action, including three who were seriously wounded.
“We were still in contact when we left the kill zone,” said Cillessen, who has deployed four times in his career. “A snow storm hit the next day. We were there for eight days trying to find the insurgents.”
Cillessen said that while he was honored to receive the award, he felt the bigger picture was overlooked. He said the work done before the ambush is what really matters.
“We made contact in largely isolated villages and helped them participate in elections,” explained Cillessen. “A lot of progress was made because the Afghanis participated in the main effort in many missions. To me, this is more than another medal to hang on my chest.”