American Heroes: Major Brian Chontosh, USMC

When the United States first entered World War I, the only award for valor for American troops was the Medal of Honor. And although the MOH remains the pinnacle of all such awards to this day, at the time, the U.S. Military decided they needed to expand their decorative horizons. The result was the Navy Cross, which started out as the third-highest honor but became the second in 1942. In order to receive a Navy Cross, one of three requirements must be met: first, valorous actions must have taken place while engaged in combat against an enemy of our nation; second, such actions must have taken place while engaged in a military operation that involves conflict with foreign forces; or, third, those actions must have taken place while the service member was fighting alongside foreign forces engaged in conflict in which the U.S. is not the belligerent party. Most importantly, the act of valor must have occurred at enormous personal risk in the face of clear and present danger and must make the service member conspicuous compared to similarly ranked and/or experienced service members. A number of small heroic acts cannot add up to earn the Navy Cross. In order to be awarded the Navy Cross, you must not only be deeply selfless but enormously courageous and endlessly heroic. Today, we honor Navy Cross recipient Major Brian Chontosh.

Brian ChontoshThis larger-than-life hero was born in 1974 in Rochester, New York, graduated from Churchville-Chili Central School in 1991, and then attended the Rochester Institute of Technology. But it was in 1993 that Chontosh found his true calling – that’s when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines are rightly known as some of the baddest of the badasses, which is probably why it was such a fantastic fit for young Chontosh. By the time the Iraq invasion took place, he’d already been in for a decade, and was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. The 3/5 is a Marine infantry battalion with the fitting nickname of “Dark Horse;” their primary objective is to locate, close with, and engage the enemy, and they were part of the initial invasion.

The invasion of Iraq started on the 20th of March, 2003, an event preceded on the 19th by massive air strikes against the Presidential Palace in Baghdad. It was immediately clear this war would not be swift; the first American casualty was Marine 1st Lt. Therrell Shane Childers, who was killed on the 21st in what was very nearly the equivalent of a wartime drive-by shooting, and he would not be the last. Within the first week our men knew they were fighting an enemy unlike others, and in the true spirit of our military, they reacted in kind: with incredible acts of heroism. It was on the 25th of March, 2003, that Brian Chontosh made his indelible mark on American history.

On that day, then-Lieutenant Chontosh and his platoon were traveling north down Highway 1 toward Ad Diwaniyah; he was the platoon leader, and his mettle was about to be tested. One moment all was calm, they were simply rolling down the road to their destination; the next, they were surrounded. Insurgents simply materialized among the sand and rocks, ringing the humvees and opening fire in a merciless onslaught. Their weapons included rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars, and there was suddenly a high chance none of the Marines would live to see the next hour, let alone the next day. The first casualty occurred when an RPG rocked the humvee behind theirs, killing a corpsman immediately on impact.

“We’re caught in the contact zone, the kill zone. Tanks started moving forward to try to get out of the kill zone. I’d like to sit here today, nine years later, and connect all the dots…but, more or less, things just started happening.” Brian Chontosh in an interview with Stars and Stripes

In a firefight, seconds count. Even the worst shot can land a direct hit when rounds are being fired at high enough rate of fire, not to mention at close range, and anyway it wasn’t just the hail of bullets, it was the RPGs and the whump of mortars falling. As heavy weapons tore into the humvees, Brian Chontosh had to make a decision, and he needed to do it fast. He couldn’t simply accelerate: the attack had clearly been carefully coordinated; not only had the insurgents appeared like ghosts in the mist, there were coalition tanks ahead, unintentionally yet effectively hemming them in. Simply making a stand wasn’t an option, either, because the enemy fire was so heavy they were being cut to shreds with stunning speed. It was hell on earth, and Brian Chontosh was the Marine archangel. He had to do something, but what?

“Heroism is endurance for one moment more.” George F. Kennan

Chontosh and McCormick with President G.W. Bush
Chontosh and McCormick with President G.W. Bush

True heroism is defiant; it flies in the face of reason, defying logic in so many ways even eyewitnesses often fail to piece together exactly what happened, and why it worked. Seeing no way out of the deathly firefight, Chontosh did what any incredibly badass Marine would do: he decided to make his own door. With his humvee. Chontosh ordered the driver, Cpl. Armand McCormick, to put the pedal to the floor and charge the enemy. You see, there was more than one hero present that day.

McCormick wasn’t even supposed to be the driver that day; his 21st birthday had taken place just the day before – a fact he’d managed to forget entirely – and he’d switched places with Cpl. Thomas Franklin. This switch put McCormick in the driver’s seat and Franklin behind the .50 cal gun, which was the best place for him to be in this scenario; the other men said Franklin was the best gunner in the entire battalion. And here they were, going into seriously up-close-and-personal combat with Chontosh leading the way.

Chontosh directed McCormick to head for an enemy trench where insurgents were laying down heavy machine gun fire directly at them and ordered Franklin to open fire. McCormick found an opening in the berm, and it was on. Franklin opened up on the machine gun bunker, pouring on heavy fire and effectively crippling the enemies in his immediate area. According to McCormick, Franklin “crushed” the bunkers: “He’s right out there in the open; he’s just pelting people.” But it wasn’t over yet.

As the humvee slid to a halt, the Marines poured out with Chontosh taking point. Chontosh charged down the trench on foot followed by Lance Cpl. Robert Kerman and McCormick. These weren’t just a few insurgents they were up against, or even a few dozen, it was hundreds. The Marines were taking fire from hundreds of AK-47s, RPGs, and heavy machine guns, and they kept going. If there had been a sign that said “chaos” with an arrow pointing the direction they were moving in, Chontosh would simply have smiled and lead the way.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” T.S. Eliot

And then his M16A2 service rifle malfunctioned. He attempted to clear it, found it clear, attempted to reload, and it wouldn’t fire. Suddenly, he had nothing but his sidearm. That was when he decided it was better to risk his life than Kerman’s, better he go ahead than the young Lance Corporal, and he moved on with McCormick, using Kerman’s fully-functioning rifle. Chontosh was laying down fire at an incredible rate, so it wasn’t long before he ran out of ammo for the second rifle. Now he really was down to his 9mm.

Then he burned through all his pistol ammo, and had nothing to fall back on.

But Chontosh was a Marine, and he didn’t know the meaning of failure, so he quickly scanned the area, spotted an enemy’s dropped AK-47, and grabbed it. Turning the enemy’s own weapons on them has a certain poetic justice, and on that day Brian Chontosh was writing poetry.

He ran out of ammo with the borrowed AK-47.

At this point you might be thinking he was finished, and not only finished but quite possibly as good as dead. He was still taking heavy enemy fire, darting behind what limited cover the desert provided as he found himself, once again, without a weapon. So he took another enemy AK-47. Then he found an RPG.

Neither Chontosh nor McCormick knew how to operate the RPG, but they were willing to give it a shot. McCormick told Chontosh to hurry it up, and the shot he ended up taking wasn’t exactly effective. McCormick remembers it as “a ball of fire going down the trench.” However, that RPG took out even more enemies. After the RPG attempt, the two men did what Marines sometimes do in combat – they laughed, then headed back towards the convoy.

“Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless when facing them.” Rabindranath Tagore

As they made their way back, they came upon an insurgent pretending to be dead who was actually attempting to get a grenade active. Nearby Marines yelled for Chontosh to shoot the enemy fighter, but as had already happened numerous times during the firefight, he was out of ammo. Again. And then, as luck – or perhaps a higher power – would have it, he looked down, and there, in the sand, were a few live rounds. Chontosh was back at the spot where his first rifle had failed, and those unused rounds were the result of his brief struggle with the weapon. Without hesitating, Chontosh grabbed one, loaded it, and shot the insurgent before he could properly work the grenade and kill them all.

Insurgents: 0. Guns: 5. Chontosh: You’re about to find out.

Franklin had remained in the turret manning the .50 cal throughout Chontosh’s on-foot battle, and he was just about out of ammo himself. Chontosh estimates Franklin fired around 1,500 rounds, and McCormick credits him with saving their lives: “If it wasn’t for him up in the gun, I don’t know if we would have even made it.” Franklin was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a “V.” The other men believe he deserved far more.

McCormick and Kerman, who Chontosh remembers for his impressively smooth shooting, were each awarded the Silver Cross.

Chontosh receiving the Navy Cross
Chontosh receiving the Navy Cross

Brian Chontosh was awarded the Navy Cross.

“When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Chontosh reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.” From Brian Chontosh’s citation

Being a true hero, Chontosh credits his men with saving his life, not just once, but repeatedly. “They saved my life multiple times that day, during the ambush. That’s all them. If it wasn’t for them, I would be the lieutenant who would be reported as a case of what not to do.”

In 2004, Chontosh was one of the Marines that swept through Fallujah, fighting ferociously for every inch of ground. During that deployment, Chontosh earned not one but two Bronze Stars with a “V.” And at the end of that deployment, it was truly the end, because it was time for him to leave the Marine Corps.

Leaving the Corps, Chontosh says, was “pretty emotional” but it was time. And although the mere mention of his name around another Marine is bound to result in some serious – and well-deserved – hero worship, Chontosh seems himself as “an average dude,” and maybe he is. Maybe heroism really is carried out by ordinary people – average dudes – doing extraordinary things. And maybe not.

Men like Brian Chontosh are rare. They start out average, but their ability to persevere beyond the limits of ordinary men, to face death and laugh, makes them unique. Brian Chontosh charged into battle armed with the most valuable weapon – courage – and his actions undoubtedly saved the lives of the men with him. He is truly one of the few.

Ooh Rah!

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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