College senior Chad Malmberg is back from Iraq with quite a story to tell. On Saturday, the Minnesota Guardsman will be awarded the Silver Star.
MANKATO -- Chad Malmberg isn't exactly a reluctant hero. More like a slightly bemused one.
Malmberg's world these days is the world of a 27-year-old senior at Minnesota State University, Mankato, happily completing studies at a campus peopled by slackers in flip-flops playing Hacky Sack in the bright autumn sun and coeds with cell phones that seem permanently attached to their ears.
His world was different just eight months ago, when Staff Sgt. Malmberg was commanding a convoy escort team attacked by 30 or more insurgents in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere in Iraq. What followed was a 50-minute firefight with the enemy so close you could see their faces in the muzzle flashes of their weapons.
When it was over, as many as nine insurgents lay dead and Malmberg's crew, though greatly outnumbered, escaped physically unscathed.
Malmberg's deeds that January night have elevated him to hero status.
On Saturday, the St. Paul native will be awarded the Silver Star, the fourth-highest military decoration available to a member of any branch of the U.S. military.
It is designated solely for valor in the face of the enemy, and Malmberg is the first Minnesota National Guard member to be awarded the medal since World War II.
Malmberg resists the idea that his is a special heroism.
"Anybody who is there when their country calls upon them and is willing to go overseas and serve their country is a hero," Malmberg said on Thursday at the condo he owns just off the Mankato campus. "The first time I put on that uniform, I felt like I was a hero. There's a lot of heroic actions going on all the time and they are not getting the same recognition."
A blast, then an ambush
Malmberg was in charge of five gun trucks that were escorting a couple dozen semitrailer trucks back to Talil from a base near the Baghdad airport on Jan. 27. He and about 2,500 other members of the Minnesota National Guard had been in Iraq for about 10 months of what would turn out to be a 16-month deployment. He had volunteered to go to Iraq and was assigned to A Company, 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry.
About 10 miles into the run, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off in a convoy up ahead, forcing Malmberg's convoy to stop. It turned out to be the perfect place for an ambush: high berms and deep ditches and a guardrail making it impossible to turn around.
The enemy had established advantageous fire positions and were clearly skilled fighters.
When one of the Humvees ran low on ammunition, its gunner abandoned his mounted machine gun for his rifle. Another soldier got out of the truck and threw hand grenades. Malmberg fired a shoulder-launched rocket.
A rocket-propelled grenade detonated on the cab of one of the trucks, sending smoke billowing from both sides. A soldier rushed to the semi, thinking the driver was dead. Seeing that he had survived, the soldier dragged the driver to safety.
The fighting was intense and close. Soldiers had to use their personal weapons because the Humvee-mounted weapons could not be aimed so close to the vehicles. Malmberg threw a hand grenade, killing a half-dozen fighters in a nearby ditch.
His squad did not stick around to survey the damage. They moved to a safer area, made sure everyone was OK and continued on their journey to Talil.
"I didn't know if we had been there for 10 minutes or three hours," Malmberg said. "Even when I think back about it now, I kind of remember things in segments. You lose the concept of time because you are so focused."