MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - -- Unlike his previous four tours, this one was spent wearing shiny bars rather than subdued stripes. It was spent riding in a tank rather than pounding the ground in combat boots. For this 32-year-old former Staff Sergeant, his 2nd tour in Iraq was highlighted with the presentation of one of the nation’s most prestigious medals.
Greensburg, Pa. native, 1st Lt. Aaron C. Smithley, the executive officer for Company C, 2nd Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 1, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, received the Bronze star May 16 for heroic achievement in connection with combat operations from October to December 2004.
Smithley served as the wingman for Capt. Robert J. Bodisch, the commanding officer for Company C, 2nd Tank Battalion, RCT 1, 1st Marine Division I Marine Expeditionary Force.
“As his wingman, it was my job to cover the CO’s flanks and rear,” said Smithley.
According to the award citation, insurgents attacked the Bodisch’s tank with multiple rocket-propelled grenades. Smithley immediately came to his aid, destroying the enemy and providing security during the subsequent evacuation of the damaged tank.
“We were heading south into Al Fallujah when we hit a heavy pocket of resistance. It was the largest urban battle since Hue city,” said Smithley.
Successfully operating a tank is by no means a one-man job. It takes the cooperation of an entire crew to perform the task.
“Teamwork was paramount. My loader, driver and the rest of my Marines had to stay in-sync with one another to successfully complete the mission,” said Smithley.
With close to four years as a commissioned officer, Smithley found himself in the midst of an ambush on Nov. 12, 2004.
“It was a dangerous combination of indirect fire, sniper fire and RPG’s. The infantry was sustaining heavy injuries and the home team was in a bad way. Nevertheless, we continued to advance forward and push through,” said Smithley.
As a former infantryman, Smithley knew exactly the kind of situation the grunts were engaged in.
“Compared to them, our job is easy. We sit in a heavily armored tank. Bullets bouncing off the hull are more distracting than anything else. The guys on the ground are the ones completely unprotected and out in the open. They’re the ones physically kicking down the doors and storming the buildings. They’ve got it hard,” said Smithley.
As most Marines are when receiving an award such as this, Smithley too was surprised.
“Thousands of Marines perform countless acts of heroism day in and day out. I just happen to be one of the lucky few to be officially recognized for it,” said Smithley.
Though his family was undoubtedly proud of his accomplishment, their greatest award was having their son, husband and father back in their arms again, said Smithley.
After serving first as an infantryman and now as a tank officer, Smithley has first-hand knowledge of two closely related Military Occupational Specialties. Without one another, they are virtually useless.
“The combination of the infantry and tanks is a proven weapon in urban warfare. There is no substitute. I wish I had more room in my tank; I would take the grunts with me,” said Smithley.