Second Lt. Bryan Jackson was eight months into his first tour of duty in Iraq and out on patrol in Anbar Province in September 2006 when the Humvee he was towing behind a Bradley Fighting Vehicle got stuck in the mud.
It was a mundane mishap, but it made Jackson and his crew nervous. Not only did they fear the Humvee would roll over, but they also knew the stall made them a naked target for insurgent fire. Just a month earlier, a comrade had been seriously wounded at the same spot near the town of Hit.
What happened next would earn Jackson, now a first lieutenant, the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action — making him only the seventh soldier since the Vietnam War to receive the nation’s second-highest military honor. Jackson, a West Point graduate, is from Oak Harbor where his father, now based in Washington, D.C., commanded a Navy P3 Orion squadron on Whidbey Island.
On Sept. 27, 2006, Jackson and his crew climbed down and began working quickly to try to free the mired Humvee. In almost the same instant, Jackson heard the cracks of multiple machine guns opening up on them.
Jackson looked over to see two fellow soldiers downed under fire. Instinctively he headed toward 1st Sgt. David Sapp, whose head was bleeding. On the ground nearby lay company commander Eric Stainbrook, also gravely wounded.
As Jackson worked frantically to apply pressure to Sapp’s wounds, bullets ripped through his own body — first his thigh, then his left hand. Stunned and disoriented, he slumped over.
“It’s hard to describe what it feels like in combat — being afraid, angry, sad, upset all at once,” he said this week in an interview. “You’re trying to make sense of it. Then your training takes over, and you just react. You have very little time to think.”
Jackson knelt over Sapp’s body, alternately trying to apply field first aid, and firing back at the attackers. He emptied his weapon’s 30 rounds before he collapsed, too weak and injured to reload. Lying on the ground, he tried to console Stainbrook that help was on the way.
“The sound was overwhelming,” he said. What seemed like long minutes slid by before the crew of a nearby Bradley could disembark and offer backup. As medics rushed to help the downed men, Jackson staggered up.
“I remember standing up,” he said. “I knew if I didn’t, it meant they would have to carry me, and that would have put more people at risk.”
Jackson helped carry Sapp toward cover. A third bullet ripped into his own leg. Still, he pressed forward until they reached the back of the vehicle.
“We laid him down,” said Jackson, “And he was screaming. I grabbed his hand with my left hand and just held it.”
A medic looked over, and could see Jackson was bleeding, but Jackson refused his aid.
“My injuries were severe,” he said. “His were life threatening.”
Soldiers eventually rounded up more than 60 Iraqis suspected of taking part in the ambush.
For his actions, Jackson received the nation’s second-highest distinction after the Medal of Honor for valor during a ceremony Nov. 2 in Washington, D.C.
His citation reads in part: ” 2nd Lt. Jackson’s selfless courage under extreme enemy fire was essential to saving another soldier’s life. …”
“I couldn’t be more proud of my son,” said his father, Navy Capt. Walter Jackson, who is stationed at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. “No one knows how they’ll react in a situation like that. I’m proud that when it was his turn to step up, he did.”
The younger Jackson, who had been with Task Force 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment stationed in Germany, spent nearly a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., undergoing more than a dozen surgeries.
For the first three months there, he used a wheelchair and had a gaping, cone-shaped wound in his leg. Doctors wanted to amputate his bullet-shattered left index finger, but he pleaded to keep it. Surgery eventually closed the wound in his leg and with multiple hand surgeries, including bone grafts, he’s regained about 85 percent use of his left hand.
He runs 5 miles a day and has been designated “fit for duty.” He will head to Korea for a new assignment as a platoon leader of a rocket artillery unit after spending Thanksgiving in Seattle with one of his two older sisters. After his tour is up, he’s hoping to attend law school in Washington state and wants to join the Army’s legal team.
Receiving the Distinguished Service Cross came as a surprise.
“I didn’t expect it,” he said. “I was doing what anyone else would have done in that situation. I am humbled to receive it.”
He prizes another gift he got that day even more. “All three of us survived,” he said. “We were lucky.”