Soldier awarded Silver Star
By William Cole
The Honolulu Advertiser
Holding the helmet that still bears a bullet hole, Army Master Sgt. Suran Sar points to where a bullet hit him as he was conducting military operations in Afghanistan during a news conference at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, on Tuesday. — Marco Garcia / AP Photo
CAMP H.M. SMITH — Even as Master Sgt. Suran Sar charged multiple enemy firing at him in the mountains of Afghanistan, he knew it wasn’t his turn to die. But he came within a hairbreadth. As Sar burst into a windowless wood-and-earthen mountain shelter near the Pakistan border, an enemy fighter fired a burst from his AK-47 at point-blank range.
Two of the bullets missed. A third creased Sar’s Kevlar helmet and snapped his chin strap. Sar won’t give the specifics of what happened next, but the Army Special Forces soldier collected a handful of firearms — most of which weren’t given voluntarily. And yesterday a Silver Star was pinned on Sar’s chest.
Recalling the March 5 firefight, Sar said: “At that point, I knew I’m coming home.” He added, “I already know, if I’m supposed to go, I do believe, I’m Buddhist, and if I’m supposed to go, I’ll go.”
Sar, who is Cambodian and has been a U.S. citizen since 1986, that day flanked a ridge and surprised other militants who had his team pinned down, and is credited with saving the lives of fellow service members with Operational Detachment Alpha 732.
Yesterday’s recognition was the latest remarkable turn for the humble man who is based at Camp Smith but grew up under the murderous regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
“He didn’t want this,” Army Brig. Gen. David P. Fridovich, commander of Special Operations Command-Pacific, said of the ceremony attended by more than 100 command members and local media.
The attention was not intended to embarrass Sar, 39, which it did. Rather, it was to recognize his achievements and “what he has given back to the nation,” Fridovich said.
“You’ve already given us so much more in return than we could ever repay you,” Fridovich said.
Bronze Star in works
The Silver Star is the Defense Department’s fourth-highest award. Sar additionally received a Meritorious Service Medal, and a Bronze Star with “V” for valor also is in the works for the ‘Ewa Beach man’s involvement in another firefight in April.
The Army has awarded 37 silver Stars for Afghanistan service since the war started in 2001.
Thirteen other troops from the joint-service command also received medals for their involvement in efforts, such as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.
About 250 troops representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are assigned to Special Operations Command-Pacific at Camp Smith. Of those, about a dozen are deployed to the Philippines for anti-terrorism and humanitarian relief efforts.
Sar has been based out of Oahu since September. He was with the 7th Special Forces Group and on his second deployment to Afghanistan over the winter and spring, and he fought in the first Gulf War.
Sar said he doesn’t see himself as a hero. A hero to him is the weapons sergeant who was part of his team and was killed in Afghanistan in June. The soldier was a fellow immigrant; his father was from Mexico.
“The hardest thing I ever have to face was facing his mom, and that’s what I wear (these medals) for,” Sar said.
What happened March 5
The March 5 mission was to check out a suspected shelter on a ridge in Paktika province, a tribal and lawless area that locals call Waziristan where official boundaries between Afghanistan and Pakistan aren’t recognized.
As two Black Hawk helicopters landed early that winter morning, they came under small-arms fire. Sar bounded toward the shelter on the wooded ridge, at an elevation of 9,000 feet. Some enemy fighters dropped their weapons. Others did not. Altogether, there were at least 15 enemy forces.
As Sar entered the shelter, with a medic behind him, his helmet was struck by the bullet.
“It feels like somebody hit me with a small hammer,” Sar said, adding that he quickly found out he was OK.
The second team of six special operations troops was pinned down, and Sar was able to flank the ridge and catch enemy fighters by surprise, providing relief for his team. One other U.S. service member received a graze to the leg.
Hard life in Cambodia
Sar grew up in Cambodia under the oppression of the Khmer Rouge, which separated his family members by age, he said. His father was prosecuted by the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese, and his older brother was executed by the Vietnamese.
Speaking in a quiet voice, Sar said his mom and two little brothers died of starvation.
He came to the United States in 1981, became a U.S. citizen five years later and has been in the Army for 20 years — the past 15 in Special Forces.
“I tell you, I love this country more than my birthplace,” Sar said. “I came from Cambodia and I lost (a lot) of my family there, and nobody here can tell me what it’s like, the loss of freedom. ... This country gave me so much, and this is a small price to pay, the long deployments away from home.”