As a few dozen Marines watched, 1st Sgt. Curtis Rice stood stoic in the intimate courtyard at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as his regimental commander pinned on a Bronze Star medal, its gold “V” catching a glint of the sun.
Col. Bruce Nickle, the Combat Logistics Regiment 17 commander, tapped him on the shoulder and stepped aside so Rice could address the crowd. “I’m almost at a loss for words,” said Rice, 35, a native of Worcester, Mass., who serves as company first sergeant with Food Service Company. “I was just doing my job, as anyone in this formation would do.”
A minute earlier, the crowd listened May 24 as a Marine read the citation for the valor award for Rice’s “heroic example…extraordinary guidance…zealous initiative…total dedication to duty” stemming from his actions in Afghanistan’s Uzbin Valley on July 27, 2009, during a nine-month combat tour – his first in his 16-year career.
On that day, Rice, the staff noncommissioned officer with Embedded Training Team 1-11, was returning with his team of about 20 in Humvees returning from a shura meeting when a group of about 50 Taliban fighters attacked a small Afghan National Army post. Afghan soldiers with the 2nd Kandak, 3rd Brigade, 201st Corps, manned the post with Army Special Forces soldiers with an Operational Detachment-Alpha team. Rice, a gunnery sergeant at the time and machinist by training, had spent nearly six years assigned and working in Okinawa, Japan, but intense combat and field training before he left for eastern Afghanistan’s Kabul province prepared him to instinctively react that moment.
“He led an aggressive counterattack…, miraculously preventing the position from being overrun and any friendly loss of life,” states his award citation. “During the five-hour engagement, he answered the call as his actions turned the tide in very heavy and close combat with the enemy.
“He personally eliminated enemy fighters who were maneuvering on the pinned down combined patrol. He sprinted across open ground while taking enemy fire to resupply a MK-19 team with ammunition and perform remedial actions on an M-240,” it states.
As a medevac helicopter approached to evacuate a gravely wounded Special Forces officer, Rice killed an enemy fighter who was about to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the helicopter. To Rice, the intense, long battle seemed like it lasted “a half hour.” Miraculously, only one member of his team, Marine Cpl. Ethan Nagel, who went thick into the fight alongside the Afghan soldiers as Taliban fighters tried to envelop their position, suffered a shoulder wound and earned a Purple Heart, said Rice. “I received absolutely no wounds,” he added.
The battle, said Rice, was “the biggest engagement” he and his team encountered during their time in Afghanistan. During that combat tour, Rice also earned another Bronze Star medal, awarded to him for his work with the team and as assistant operations chief, a job that included planning and commanding 63 convoys and tracking 315 convoys in the area with “no loss of life, limb or equipment” to the team, according to the award citation. “The Marines out there on the battlefield that day did extraordinary things,” said Rice, “much more extraordinary that what I did that day.”
How Rice landed in Afghanistan on Nov. 5, 2008, to work with ETT 1-11, assigned to Regional Corps Advisory Command-Center, is another story. By the fall of 2008, Rice had spent nearly six years in Japan and had worked for about 18 months as an instructor at the Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy. Many of his peers – and students – had amassed combat tours to Iraq or Afghanistan. While he enjoyed his work, he felt that something was missing. “I joined the Marine Corps to deploy,” said Rice. And that meant going to the combat zone.
Until then, he hadn’t gotten the call. One day, he told the academy’s director, Sgt. Maj. Ramona Cook: “I want to go on deployment.” It didn’t take much convincing Cook, who eventually helped him get orders to leave the staff academy ahead of the usual rotations and deploy overseas with a training team. During his deployment, Rice kept occasional contact by email with Cook, now the base sergeant major at Camp Pendleton, but didn’t detail his combat actions or even mention his Bronze Star medals until the day before the ceremony.
“He’s so humble that he hadn’t said anything,” said Cook, who rushed over to catch the ceremony and congratulate him. His actions detailed in the citation “didn’t surprise me at all.”
“That’s just the type of Marine he is. He cares about his team, certainly goes above and beyond the call of duty,” Cook said. “It’s never been about him.” Regimental Sgt. Maj. Brenda Jackson agreed, saying Rice’s award “is an indication of his type of leadership. He would do anything for anybody. He’s definitely a natural, he doesn’t have to think about it.”
Rice, who is married, wears a black metal bracelet etched with the name of Maj. Rocco Barnes, an Army Special Forces officer and National Guardsmen with ETT 1-11 who died in a vehicle accident in Afghanistan in July 2009. “A true hero,” Rice said.
He found solace in receiving the valorous award just days before Memorial Day and remembering those who have served and those who died for their country. He thanks Marines, who he called “average people coming from average places but (who) do extraordinary things in the Marine Corps.” And that even includes machinists. “It doesn’t really matter what MOS you hold, what job you have,” said Rice. “Every Marine is a rifleman.”