Air Force veteran Michael Malarsie will never forget the day a bomb blast blinded him and left him laying in a creek in Afghanistan, as fellow Sr. Airman Bradley R. Smith rushed through enemy fire to treat the injuries of his wounded friend.
Malarsie and Smith were embedded with an Army unit and assigned to call in air strikes for the troops fighting the ground war. A little more than a month into their deployment, a battle in January 2010 would cost Smith and three Army soldiers their lives in the same battle Malarsie was injured.
Friday, the airmen’s stories of heroism and sacrifice were enshrined at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in a tribute display for Tactical Air Control Party teams.
Malarsie’s and Smith’s black berets and camouflage uniforms sit on display side-by-side, just as the two men once fought together in Afghanistan.
“It’s a huge honor to have my stuff sitting there next to Brad who is my hero,” said Malarsie, 27, of Salt Lake City, Utah, with his German Shepherd service dog, Xxon, at his side. “It’s hard to put that into words.”
Malarsie, who is a motivational speaker and married father of three, remained on active duty after the incident for nearly four more years and started a mentoring program for injured airmen.
Gary and Paula Smith, both 56 of Troy, Ill., parents of Bradley, attended the emotional ceremony at the museum Friday.
Gary Smith said his then 24-year-old son, who was married and had an infant daughter at the time of his death, was “always driven” and excelled at his Air Force job.
When Bradley told his parents about his career choice, “we just kind of sat down and looked at one another, and we didn’t have a very good feeling about it because I don’t think any parent would have a good feeling about their child taking a chance to go into battle,” Gary Smith said. “We kind of resigned ourselves that this was just him, and he wanted the challenge of the job, And so we finally, reluctantly gave him our blessings and he took off.”
Paula Smith said her son was born on Sept. 11, 1985, and the terrorist attacks on the United States on his 16th birthday were part of what influenced him to join the military. “We were very proud of him,” she said.
Smith and Malarsie deployed in December 2009 from Fort Riley, Kan., to Afghanistan with Army soldiers from Fort Carson, Colo.
On Jan. 3, 2010, the two airmen were on a foot patrol near the village of Badvan when heavy small arms fire and mortar erupted as they crossed a bridge. An IED explosion killed two soldiers within seconds. Malarsie was blown off the bridge.
Smith rushed through enemy fire to Malarsie’s side to treat his injured comrade. Smith and an Army medic then traveled through enemy fire again to retrieve the body of a fallen soldier. A second IED detonated and killed both the airman and the medic.
While recuperating, Malarsie later met then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and his wife, Suzie, at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Schwartz and his wife attended the museum ceremony Friday where the retired general lauded both airmen.
“During a career, maybe there are one or two or at most three times when someone enters your life and profoundly touches your soul,” Schwartz said. “For Suzie and me, this was Michael Malarsie — a person of such depth of character that I wish I was half the man he was.”
Smith posthumously received the Silver Star medal. Malarsie received the Bronze Star with Valor for battlefield heroism.
The museum’s display tells their story that day and notes the sacrifice of Army Staff Sgt. Joshua A. Lengstorf, 24, Yoncalla, Ore.; Spec. Brian R. Bowman, 24, Crawfordsville, Ind.; Pfc. John P. Dion, 19, Shattuck, Okla.
“It really puts the real human connection to the people who served that mission,” said museum director John “Jack” Hudson.
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