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Corpsman earns Silver Star for actions in Afghanistan

Mar. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
NHP corpsman receives Silver Star
Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (FMF) Zackery Penner, a corpsman assigned to Naval Hospital Pensacola, Fla., was awarded the Silver Star on Wednesday for actions while serving with Marines in Afghanistan in summer 2012. Major Gen. Raymond Fox, commanding general, II Marine Expeditionary Force, presented the medal to Penner at the hospital. (Jason Bortz/Navy)
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Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (FMF) Zackery Penner, shown here on his first deployment to Afghanistan with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, received the Silver Star on Wednesday. (Navy)

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (FMF) Zackery Penner became the Navy’s 13th Silver Star recipient in 13 years of war when he received the prestigious award for his selfless bravery under fire at a ceremony Wednesday.

The award dates to the summer of 2012, when Penner was a corpsman with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. The unit was part of Regimental Combat Team 6, which had recently launched Operation Jaws — an effort to disrupt the enemy and establish stronger footholds in areas of Afghanistan where American forces were few and far between. The operation started strong and netted some big victories, but it wouldn’t stay that way long.

Penner’s squad was days away from returning home when a fierce firefight erupted June 22. Gunfire severely wounded a Marine on a nearby rooftop. Seeing this, Penner “bravely exposed himself to accurate and heavy enemy fire from only 50 meters away as he moved to the casualty,” according to his award citation, a copy of which was obtained by Navy Times.

The Marine was hit in the neck and bleeding badly. Penner, who had been baptized by fire on a previous deployment, paid little heed to rounds that ricocheted around him. He applied pressure to the wound, opened an airway and radioed for help.

The Marine didn’t make it.

Reaction gave way to reality later that night.

“I was trying to push everything away like it didn’t happen,” said Penner, 23, who had been a part of that squad from the start, in a March 12 phone interview. “We still had five days … I had to get my mind straight for the next mission.”

The following day, with their fallen comrade heavy on their hearts, the squad partnered with Afghan soldiers to clear a compound. The all-too-familiar crack of a sniper round broke the silence, followed by three more shots. Shouts for the “doc” soon rang out. Two men were down — a Marine and an Afghan soldier had each taken a shot to the head. Insurgents then unleashed an attack with medium machine guns and precision fire weapons.

Penner recalled his response as running down, grabbing the wounded and getting them behind a wall. The humble corpsman omitted a few key facts: He was only days from rotating home, he’d risked his life the day prior, and the wounded men had little hope of survival.

None of that mattered to Penner as he ran “more than 100 meters across fire-swept terrain to reach the casualties,” according to the citation, signed Nov. 15, 2013, by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos. “He established a casualty collection point behind a wall then moved in and out of the kill zone four times in order to retrieve the casualties and get them to cover. When the squad began receiving fire from the rear, Penner courageously shielded the casualties from the enemy fire with his own body until the evacuation aircraft arrived and then bravely exposed himself to enemy fire as he moved the casualties to the aircraft.”

The Marine later died of his wounds.

It was a tough 48 hours for the Corps. Lance Cpls. Steven Stevens and Eugene Mills were killed June 22 while participating in Operation Jaws in the Sangin Valley district. Lance Cpls. Niall Coti-Sears and Hunter Hogan were killed the following day. Hogan and Mills served alongside Penner in Bravo Company.

Though he returned home with no physical wounds, the burden Penner carries is evident. His joyous talk of Marine brothers is quieted when he recounts the men who did not return.

“I feel like anyone else in the squad would have done the same thing for me,” Penner said. “I was just in the wrong place at the right time. … It’s kind of hard thinking of a good memory because of everything that happened, especially so close to be home.”

Penner is now assigned to Naval Hospital Pensacola, Fla. He said he plans to re-enlist in May and knock out some school. He does not know who put him in for the award, but said he is humbled by the honor.

Of the 13 Silver Stars awarded to sailors since since Sept. 11, 2001, all but one has gone to a corspman.The exception is Lt. j.g. Francis Toner, a Seabee who died March 27, 2009, when he took on a shooter who had infiltrated the Afghan army and opened fire on unarmed Americans at Forward Operating Base Shaheen.

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