Story by SGT Marc Loi
U.S. Marine Corps LtCol Matthew Lopez, an infantry officer who is currently a student in the Joint Advanced Warfighting School at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., will never forget the five-day ordeal he and his unit, based out of Marine Corps Base 29 Palms, Calif., went through in April, 2005.
The Department of Defense didn’t let him forget, either. In a 29 September ceremony attended by his wife, son, and parents, Lopez was awarded the prestigious Silver Star for his actions from April 14 – 18, 2004, when his unit came under fire near the Syrian border in Iraq, while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Riding in the 3rd vehicle of an 8-vehicle convoy heading to assist other Marines in another firefight, Lopez’s own unit were suddenly hit with enemy fire. The Marines responded. When the smoke cleared, Lopez and his Marines had killed 25 anti-Coalition fighters. Twenty-two Marines in the convoy lie wounded, including Lopez himself. “The shot hit [my] back,” Lopez said. In addition, the impact of the round also broke a few of his ribs. “My first thought was I didn’t want to pass out,” Lopez, a Chicago native, said. “We’d already fought through one ambush and I wanted to get the injured Marines to the medevacs as quickly as possible.” It wasn’t until that night that Lopez himself was treated for the wounds he sustained.
Marines were involved in another fight at a forward base checkpoint, and needed fire support. “I didn’t do anything that any other Marine wouldn’t have done,” he said. “It’s my privilege to stand here today and recognize this great Marine,” said Army Maj. Gen. Ken Quinlan, JFSC Commandant. “His actions helped define who we are,” Quinlan said. “Who we are is our greatest weapon – our values, ethos and warrior spirit.”
The Silver Star medal, in some ways, represents membership to an exclusive club. Lopez became only the 24th Marine to earn the Silver Star OIF. “This is not something that the Marine Corps just give out. Each award is earned. And earned only through heroic actions,” said Marine Colonel Mike Santacroce, the Senior Marine at the Staff College.
Lopez, however, credits fellow Marines for the award. Every servicemember with whom he worked contributed to his success in earning the award, he said. “I think the credit belongs to the individuals who put themselves at risk everyday out there,” he said. “The young Marines, soldiers and sailors’ work guarantee US success in Iraq. And I was especially thankful for the support of the U.S. Air Force on April 17th.” In his 20-year career with the Marine Corps, Lopez has gotten the chance to deploy too many foreign lands and participate in many missions. Nothing, he said, will leave the lasting memories as his two tours in Iraq did. “The heroism of the individual Marines in Iraq is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said. His heroism, too, will stick with his Marines for the rest of their lives.
Army Colonel Fred Kienle, Dean of the Joint Advanced Warfighting School noted that Lopez’ accomplishments continue well beyond the battlefields of Iraq. “His dedication, warfighting spirit and operational experience have significantly contributed to the successful collaborative learning environment in his seminar.” As a part of the second JAWS class, a school missioned by the CJCS to produce “world-class campaign planners,” Lopez has exactly the right combination of intellect, ingenuity and experience to excel. It is apparent why he was selected by the Corps to attend this rigorous joint education; his superior accomplishments continue.