“I truly thought he was the toughest member of my platoon.” – Delta Platoon Commander Lt. Cmdr. Seth Stone
In 2006, the situation in Iraq, and in Anbar province in the west, was dire verging on disaster. No less a person than the respected Marine Corps chief of intelligence in Iraq, Col. Pete Devlin, had filed a secret report that summer stating, in part, that there were no functioning government institutions in Anbar and that the power vacuum was being filled by insurgents from the terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq. At that time, the most violent city in Anbar province was Ramadi, where, in the words of embedded AP reporter Todd Pitman, the “sheer scale of violence … was astounding.” No one better knew the reality of the situation in Ramadi than Petty Officer Michael Anthony “Mikey” Monsoor, the heavy weapons machine gunner and communicator in Delta Platoon, SEAL Team 3.
Born in Long Beach, Calif., on April 5, 1981, Monsoor was a devout Catholic of Christian-Arab descent who grew up in Garden Grove, Calif., the third of four children of George and Sally Monsoor. His family had a history of military service. Both his father and older brother served as Marines, and his grandfather served in the Navy. Though not an “A” student or gifted athlete, it was his determination, resolution, respect for others, and a desire to protect people that made him stand out. Monsoor enlisted in the Navy on March 21, 2001. Following basic training, he attended Quartermaster “A” School, where he earned his quartermaster rating. After a tour of duty at Naval Air Station, Sigonella, Italy, Monsoor entered Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in Coronado, Calif. He was forced to withdraw when he suffered a broken heel. He returned in 2004 and graduated at the top of his class in March 2005. The next month his rating changed from quartermaster to master-at-arms and he was assigned to SEAL Team 3 Delta Platoon. In April 2006, he and his platoon arrived in Anbar province.
Anbar province, which stretches from Baghdad west to the borders of Syria and Jordan, contained at the time about 600,000 people, most of whom lived in or near the provincial capital of Ramadi. The predominantly Sunni province also accounts for 30 percent of Iraq’s land mass and includes the major city of Fallujah. Fallujah had been the site for Operation Phantom Fury in November 2004. Though the operation was a coalition success against Iraq’s insurgent and terrorist forces, the high number of civilian casualties and the damage and destruction of about half of the city’s homes made it, with respect to the civilian cost, a Pyrrhic victory.
In 2006, Ramadi became an important battleground for what was described as “both a litmus test for the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq and a laboratory” in a broader strategy to secure the area and allow local Iraqi authorities to regain control of the region. Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, was made overall commander of the operation to subdue Ramadi. Among his duties, he was to partner with Iraqi army and police units and train and mentor them in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations. With the experience of Fallujah a fresh memory, MacFarland’s instructions were broad: “Fix Ramadi, but don’t destroy it.”
Because his force was relatively small, MacFarland chose an incremental block-by-block approach to eliminate the insurgents and win over the local sheiks and residents. Targeting the places where enemy activity was strongest, he set up outposts designed to protect and secure areas his troops had fought. In April 2006, Monsoor’s 19-man platoon was deployed to Ramadi and assigned to Task Unit Bravo, part of the U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment (1/506th). The unit was assigned the Mulaab area, one of the most vicious neighborhoods in Ramadi. They were tasked with a broad range of missions, among them patrols, raids, and providing sniper cover for search and seizure operations.
As the heavy weapons machine gunner carrying a Mk. 48, Monsoor’s position was immediately behind the point man when the team patrolled. This enabled him to provide heavy suppression fire to protect his platoon from a frontal enemy attack. Because he was also the team’s communicator, on 15 of the missions he carried a double load of ammunition and communication gear that collectively weighed more than 100 pounds. Yet even when temperatures topped 130 degrees Fahrenheit, he never complained.
No mission – even the rare one in which they did not come under fire – was boring. Of all the missions he was on, only 25 percent did not result in an enemy attack. Thirty-five of the missions erupted in firefights so fierce the streets were described as being “paved with fire.” One such time occurred during a patrol on May 9. One teammate, caught in the middle of the street during the firefight, went down with a bullet wound to the leg. With another SEAL member providing additional cover fire, Monsoor, firing his Mk. 48, dashed out into the street to rescue his teammate. Continuing to fire his machine gun with one hand while pulling the wounded SEAL with the other, and with insurgent bullets kicking up dust and concrete all around them, Monsoor managed to drag his teammate to safety without either of them being hit. For his courage under fire he was awarded the Silver Star.
When he wasn’t on the streets, Monsoor was above them, stationed in a rooftop sniper post. There, acting in his role as a communications specialist, he spotted enemy positions and called in support fire. As the weeks went on, the coalition forces were slowly changing the tactical situation for the better. Monsoor’s contribution to the effort through his examples of leadership, guidance, and decisive actions caused him to be awarded the Bronze Star.
With the situation beginning to tip in favor of the coalition forces, MacFarland decided the time was right for the next step. Code-named Operation Kentucky Jumper, it was a combined coalition battalion clearance and isolation operation in southern Ramadi using integrated American and Iraqi forces. The operation was scheduled to commence on Sept. 29, 2006.
As he had always done before each mission, Monsoor attended mass. Father Paul Halladay, the chaplain stationed in Ramadi at the time, conducted the service, which was on the feast day of St. Michael. As the mission of the archangel is that of protector, his prayer has relevance to those about to do battle:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle!
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power
Cast into hell Satan and all evil spirits who prowl throughout the world
seeking the ruin of souls.
Monsoor’s assignment was to serve as the machine gunner of a combined force team containing four SEALs and eight Iraq army soldiers. The team was tasked with a supporting role as a sniper overwatch element guarding the western flank during ground operations. The morning was clear, with good visibility. They quickly found a rooftop location that gave them a good field of view for spotting and picking off any insurgent counterattacking force that might approach from the west.
Using tactical periscopes to scan for enemy activity, they soon spotted a group of four insurgents armed with AK-47 assault rifles conducting reconnaissance for follow-on attacks of the ground force. The snipers promptly engaged the enemy, killing one and wounding another. Not long afterward, a mutually supporting SEAL/Iraqi army team killed another enemy fighter. After these two actions, area residents supporting the insurgents began blocking off the streets around them with rocks. The purpose was twofold: to warn away civilians and to alert insurgents that sniper teams were operating in the area. In addition, someone in a nearby mosque using a loudspeaker called upon insurgents to join together in an attack on the coalition troops.
The first attack on their position began in the early afternoon. Suddenly a vehicle loaded with insurgents firing automatic weapons charged the building. The SEALs promptly returned fire. One of the attackers shot a rocket-propelled grenade that hit their building. Though the SEALs and Iraqi soldiers knew the insurgents would follow up with additional attacks, the team chose to carry out its mission and refused to evacuate. After reassessing the situation, the officer in charge, a SEAL lieutenant, identified the insurgents’ most likely avenue of attack, and positioned Monsoor with his heavy machine gun on the roof outcrop overlooking it. Monsoor’s location was near the rooftop’s exit and between two SEAL snipers. This hide-site allowed the three SEALs maximum coverage of the area.
Monsoor was using a tactical periscope when an insurgent managed to sneak up and hurl a hand grenade onto the roof. The grenade hit Monsoor on the chest and bounced onto the rooftop. Monsoor was just a couple of steps away from the exit and could have leaped through it to safety. But there were three other SEALs and eight Iraqi soldiers nearby.
“Grenade!” he shouted, and threw himself onto it. The grenade detonated as he came down on top of it. Shrapnel hit the two SEALs closest to him, wounding them. But Monsoor’s body had absorbed most of the blast. A medevac was called and within minutes, carried the three wounded away. Miraculously, Monsoor was still alive when the medevac returned to the field hospital. But his wounds were mortal. The only help possible was provided by Father Halladay, who arrived in time to give Monsoor last rites. Thirty minutes after he had acted to save the lives of those with him, Petty Officer Michael Monsoor was dead.
The lieutenant who was the officer-in-charge on the rooftop with Monsoor remembered, “He never took his eye off the grenade. His only movement was down toward it. He undoubtedly saved mine and the other SEALs’ lives, and we owe him.”
Out for respect for the SEAL who had fought with them, members of the 1/506th held a special memorial service in his name. Iraqi army scouts, who Petty Officer Monsoor had helped train, lowered their flag in memorial and then sent it to his parents.
His body was taken to California and he was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. As his coffin was being carried from the hearse to the gravesite, the pallbearers walked between two rows of SEALs. When Monsoor’s coffin passed, each SEAL, gold trident badge in hand, slapped it down deeply into the wood casket’s lid, embedding it. By the time the coffin arrived at the grave site, observers said the lid appeared “as though it had a gold inlay.”
Petty Officer Michael Monsoor was gone. But two years later, the nation showed that he would not be forgotten. On April 8, 2008, in a ceremony at the White House presided over by President George W. Bush, Petty Officer Michael Monsoor’s Medal of Honor was presented to his parents. He became the third serviceman in the Iraq war, and first from the Navy, to receive the country’s highest medal for valor. Also on that day, California Congresswoman Zoe Lofren read into the Congressional Record the account of Monsoor’s life and his self-sacrifice, adding, “An ancient historian once wrote, ‘The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet not withstanding, go out to meet it.’ Madam Speaker, these words could speak no better for the personal commitment of warriors like Petty Officer Monsoor, whose service and sacrifice in the face of evil cannot be forgotten.”
On Oct. 29, 2008, Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter announced that DDG-1001, the second ship in the Zumwalt class of destroyers, would be christened Michael Monsoor. And, four days earlier, on Oct. 25, Monsoor, SEAL Lt. Michael Murphy, and Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, who all were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their courageous actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, were honored with plaques in a rededication ceremony of the Semper Fi Marine Monument in San Clemente, Calif. It was the first time in the park’s three-year history that both Navy and Marine personnel were honored together. Sara Monsoor, Monsoor’s sister, attended the ceremony and later said, “I think that it is wonderful that they want to add him to this park with the Marines. … My hope is that when people come here, these plaques inspire them to find out their stories and really inspire them to live their lives like these men did.”
Perhaps most importantly, Ramadi is no longer the dangerous city it was during Monsoor’s tour of duty there. Though much work has yet to be done to improve life in Iraq, that already things are much improved is an additional testament that his life, given to save his teammates, was not sacrificed in vain.
This story was originally published on April 30, 2010.