Its criminal that the national media do not spread these stories.
By Maj. Sean Ryan, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division Public Affairs Office
FORWARD OPERATING BASE LOYALTY, Iraq – No Soldier leaves a forward operating base thinking they will become a hero that day. They are considering the route they will be on, doing ammunition checks, going over rules of engagement, and maybe thinking of family and friends before rolling “outside the wire” for duty in the hazardous streets of Baghdad.
April 10 started off the same as other days for the Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), “Red Devils,” out of Fort Bragg, N.C., but that quickly changed, and Staff Sgt. Brandon Zylstra and his platoon, part of the unit’s quick reaction force, found themselves responsible for hauling a supply trailer to their fellow Soldiers, who were in contact with the enemy in the Al Fadhl neighborhood of eastern Baghdad.
Zylstra, a native of Sully, Iowa, and his platoon found their route blocked by a jackknifed vehicle and immediately started taking enemy fire. With nowhere to go, he dismounted the vehicle and quickly positioned himself and his Soldiers to start moving forward. The events that followed would change Zylstra’s quiet professional demeanor into an Audie Murphy-type. His actions that day earned him the Silver Star.
Despite being completely exposed, Zylstra stood in the street and properly positioned his Soldiers, while exchanging fire with the enemy for over one minute, which seems like a lifetime in a hot combat zone. The platoon quickly took their first casualty and Zylstra ran to administer first aid, with two other Soldiers following his lead to provide security.
Enemy fire soon struck both of the Soldiers pulling security, and Zylstra provided medical care to all of them and tried to keep them in a safe location, but the present location was still under heavy attack. Zylstra, who has only known Fort Bragg as his home station and the 504th PIR as his unit, knew he had to assess which of the three casualties was the most serious and to get them to better cover.
After dragging the most serious casualty to safety, Zylstra disregarded the hail of bullets around him and ran back to the original site to retrieve the weapon of the original casualty. With enemy fire still erupting around him, he again sprinted back to his fellow injured Soldiers, this time firing both weapons at the enemy at the same time. As for all the bullets piercing the ground around him, Zylstra said, “The enemy fire didn’t really concern me, I was worried about the lives of my Soldiers.”
Spc. Dennis Howard, a native of Chicago and driver of one of the vehicles that day, explained why his squad leader would risk his life to retrieve the weapon of the first casualty that was left behind.
“Staff Sergeant Zylstra continually does the right thing and always tells us that your weapon is your best friend and never leave it behind,” Howard said.
Zylstra’s day was far from over and again he crossed the bullet-pocked street to check on a casualty, while directing fire from a crew served weapon to position his Soldiers for the fastest exit when possible. His command team believes this action not only saved the two lives of the wounded Soldiers, but that directing the gunners opened up an avenue of approach to get them out of the area as well.
“Zylstra’s life revolves around the Army and he never asks what the Army can do for him, but what more can he do for the Army,” said 1st Sgt. Christopher Bauman, a native of Muncie, Ind. “Zylstra is a quiet and humble guy, but he is adventurous and you would never see him run from a fight.”
Finally, after opening up an escape route, Zylstra couldn’t find a seat in one of the vehicles.
“I knew my vehicle had casualties in it so I jumped on the hood of my platoon sergeant’s Humvee, grabbed the sling load ring to hold on to and started firing my weapon so the enemy would keep their heads down,” he said.
“Staff Sergeant Z is everything I want to be as a Soldier,” said Spc. James Bossio, the driver of Zylstra’s vehicle and native of Modesto, Calif. “There was no way I thought he would survive after witnessing some of the things he was doing. Then, jumping on the hood all the while firing at the enemy while I was driving in reverse, it was pretty incredible to witness.”
“Loyalty to his Soldiers and his military bearing are what Zylstra is all about,” said platoon leader, 1st Lt. Daniel Capozza, from Cooperstown, N.Y. “He is not really into much fanfare, but leaving the area while firing a weapon with one hand is something out of the movies, and he did what he had to do to take care of his guys.”
For his disregard for his own personal safety and willingness to risk his own life to save his Soldiers, Zylstra was awarded the Silver Star, pinned on by Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, Aug. 5, in a crowded theater in eastern Baghdad with Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil, Jr., the Multi-National Division-Baghdad commanding general, standing next to him. Both generals spent time speaking with the Soldiers of the “Red Devil” battalion and other visitors, praising both Zylstra and the unit for their dedication and work ethic.
In 1942, the 504th Parachute Infantry became the first Parachute Infantry Regiment in the newly designated 82nd Airborne Division under the command of Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley. The nickname “The Devils in Baggy Pants,” was taken from an entry found in the diary of a German officer killed at Anzio during World War II after their eight-week stay on the beachhead.
Few units are more highly decorated or have a prouder heritage than Soldiers of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Zylstra has upheld that standard.