Sgt. James Witkowski
(1973 - 2005)

A Soldier's Final Sacrifice

Sgt. James Witkowski, who threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of others in Iraq, is posthumously honored.

Los Alamitos, CA -- Army Reserve Sgt. James Witkowski would have given his life again.

That's what his parents and fellow soldiers said Sunday. On Oct. 26. just a month before he was due to come home. Witkowski's gun truck rumbled along a highway in northeastern Iraq. His convoy was attacked, and a hand grenade landed in the gun turret he was manning.

He threw himself on the grenade. saving the lives of three soldiers.

Following his death, Witkowski was awarded the Silver Star -- the third-highest medal -- for gallantry under fire as a gunner in a combat patrol.

On Sunday, at the Joint Forces Training Base. Witkowski's parents accepted the Silver Star from Maj. Gen. Paul Mock, commander of the Army Reserve Forces in California, Arizona and Nevada, on behalf of their son.

"He performed heroically as a soldier and a leader," Mock told the crowd of family, friends and soldiers.

Mock knelt in front of Witkowski's parents for several minutes, holding the Silver Star in its case while speaking privately with them.

"We're very proud and we wouldn't have expected any less from him," said his mother. Barbara Witkowski. "We know he would have done it again."

Witkowski, 32, known as 'Ski' to his Army buddies, was in the 729th Transportation Company based in Balad, Iraq. The Unit is part of the 63rd Regional Readiness Command headquartered at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos. The 21-truck convoy was taking construction supplies to a unit establishing a new base.

As it passed a burned-out village, anti-coalition small-arms fire, improvised explosive devices, and hand- and rocket-propelled grenades exploded all around. "The goal of the insurgents was to get the convoy stopped," said Master Sgt. John Souza, 50, Witkowski's platoon leader, who was just a few trucks back. "We sped up through the kill zone, the whole time receiving incoming fire. We established a hasty perimeter, then found out a gun truck was hit."
That Humvee was one of three providing security for the convoy. Witkowski -- sitting up in a gun turret, partially exposed -- fought back, firing his .50-caliber weapon. "He could have jumped back inside the Humvee but he didn't," said Maj. Sean Cannon, the unit's commanding officer. "It was his selfless service, personal courage and duty."

Witkowski is only the second Army reservist to receive the Silver Star during the Iraq conflict.

Like former Arizona Cardinal and Arizona State University football player Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan, Witkowski from Surprise, Ariz.. was inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. "His whole attitude changed after 9/11." said his father. James Witkowski. "It went from 'I want to join the Army to get an education' to 'This is something I want to do.' Life meant more to him.'' Army Reserve Sgt. Chad Fisher, on leave from Iraq, misses his boyhood friend. "I'll miss the conversations with him,'' Fisher said. "He was Incredibly deep. His humor was completely original. We called him 'Uncle Jimmy', he was like the weird uncle that always showed up at every party and all the kids liked him."

Fisher, who named his newborn daughter Elizabeth James, said Witkowski was "a man confident in his own skin."

"But when 9/11 happened, it genuinely (upset) him," he said. "When Pat Tillman enlisted -- what he left on the table leaving the NFL -- thousands of athletes wouldn't have done that. We thought 'Hey Tillman did it, so can we.' "

One of the first things Witkowski did when he came home on leave last summer, said Fisher, is take photos of himself standing beside Tillman's memorial at Arizona State University.
Those who served with Witkowski said he symbolized the soldier's spirit.

"Lunging his body over the grenade -- that's part of his warrior ethos," said Souza. "Putting the mission first, that's something instilled in him as a soldier."

"He was the All-American kid who rose above the pettiness, apathy and selfishness of his generation and answered the call to duty when others would not," Cannon said.

Halfway into his tour of duty, he told his father he wanted to make the Army his career.

"I didn't want him to lose his life." said James Witkowski. "But I'm glad he saved three others. He was a good son."

"He loved life and people," said Souza. "Everyone wanted to be around him, lIe had a special aura. He was a magnet for happiness."


Sgt. James Witkowski was killed Oct. 26 in an attack near Ashraf, Iraq. He was 32.

Sliver Star

Third-highest medal awarded for gallantly in action against enemy forces, behind the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. The Silver Star was enacted into law in 1942 and is the successor to the Citation Star established in 1918. The Silver Star is awarded to a person, who while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army, is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force.

From: Orange County Register by Erica J. Ritchie; reprinted in ZGODA July 1, 2006.