“I figured that if I was in front, then all of my guys would be behind me.”
On June 18, 2004, Air Force Staff Sgt. Earl Covel was working with a team of eight Army Special Forces soldiers and 10 Kurdish guerilla fighters in an undisclosed location in Iraq. When several team members left their safe house in order to get supplies from a nearby base, insurgents attempted to seize the house.
“As the tactical air controller,” explains a Defense Department narrative, “Covel quickly made his way to his battle positions on the roof of an adjacent building so he could locate the enemy positions and direct air support.”
“As soon as he stepped outside, he became a target,” continues an article in Investors Business Daily. “As bullets whizzed past him, he dashed across the courtyard in a zig-zag pattern to avoid being shot.”
He quickly climbed to the roof, where his only protection was a tiny wall and a machine gun nest. “An American soldier already was manning the machine gun and drawing enemy fire from all directions. Covel got on his belly and crawled to the nest, dragging his communications equipment behind him.”
Covel made sure that he was the closest team member to the enemy fire and the American air strikes he was about to direct. He told the Portland Tribune, “I figured that if I was in front, then all of my guys would be behind me – so there wouldn’t be the risk of them being hit by our planes.
Soon he was calling air strikes and directing air traffic. It was a critical job: “For a special-forces team in the heat of battle, air cover can be the difference between life and death,” explains the Defense Department story.
Two other Americans were on the roof with Covel, a machine gunner and a sniper. The machine gunner “would lay down fire so that I could pop my head up and get a look,” Covel told the Portland Tribune. “Then they got a machine gun on us and we started taking pretty accurate fire.”
When the American sniper’s ear was shot off – literally – by an insurgent, the machine gunner took him to get medical help. Covel was left alone in what he called his own “little corner of hell,” according to the Defense Department account.
The fight lasted 36 hours, and Covel was never relieved. For 36 hours he was “coordinating air attacks, using his own rifle to defend himself and his team, and serving as an air traffic controller – keeping the pilots overhead from colliding while waiting for the order to strike,” says the Investors Business Daily piece.
“When Covel ran out of equipment to mark targets,” the Defense Department story notes, “he radioed some Bradley fighting vehicles in the area, asked the gunners to begin shooting at a specific target, then told his air crew to look for the building or areas where the Bradleys were firing. That was their next target.”
Eventually the insurgents withdrew. Of the estimated 200 insurgents who had participated in the siege, over 100 perished. No Americans or Kurdish militia members were killed. Covel’s award citation states, “Staff Sgt. Covel’s exceptional devotion to duty and outstanding bravery proved instrumental in the detachment’s successful defense against attacking terrorists.”
The Brigadier General who gave Covel his award commented, “What he did over there was beyond heroic. Heroes are those people who are put into a position where there true inner character comes out when it is needed most.”
For his actions on June 18, 2004, Earl Covel received the Silver Star, the third-highest award given for distinctive gallantry. Although a member of the Air Force, Covel was recommended for the award by the Army soldiers who had so benefitted from the air support he had directed.
We salute your valor.