Sacrifice: Mike Hanks part II.

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*Mike Hanks was later awarded the Silver Star, our nation’s second highest military award, posthumously.

17 November 2004: On this day, Michael Wayne Hanks taught me to accept the fact that God has a plan for me and that He has sent some very special people to watch over me.

The platoon had just crossed a large danger area where we could have easily been picked off one by one. We were just starting to get organized as we were moving into a new neighborhood in southern Fallujah. I had men on two sides of the road: one element in a high rise building in an over watch position as the rest of us crossed the road and got into formation. Shots rang out.

“Hey! There’s a guy jumping over the walls! He’s got a gun!”

I ran over to my platoon commander to get a situation report (SITREP). He had spotted an insurgent trying to evade our advance and the man had hopped over a couple walls and fled in the direction of a one story house. Some of the men from both squads moved to our position and began tossing grenades over a wall into a court yard. But then there was a pause. Mike Hanks and I paired up and kicked open a door to a courtyard and began searching. Nothing. We then entered a small storage area that was full of junk stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall. No shooter.

The last of my men who were in the over watch position made it across the road and Bill Sojda, my first team leader was organizing the squad behind me as Mike Hanks and I hunted for the shooter. I spotted a small opening in a crumbling wall and told Hanks I was going in.

“A’ight Sergeant Conner,” Hanks always, always called me Sergeant Conner out of respect. He never called me Leprechaun or Seamus, or Conner, or sergeant; it was always “Sergeant Conner.”

I squeezed my body through the small hole and once I was in Mike Hanks began pulling on the wall, breaking it mud brick by mud brick, trying to make a bigger opening for himself. I slowly moved along the exterior of the house looking up, looking down, looking far forward and scanning back to a few feet in front of me. Up, down, scanning. Up, down, scanning. As I came upon a window I found myself on the downward slope of some uneven ground. The butt of my rifle was in my check and I was looking over the front of my muzzle. I moved slowly in an effort to maintain my footing while slicing the window into small sections with my eyes. There he was. The shooter was in the window right in front of me and my geometry of fire was off. As I attempted to get a better shot on the insurgent he heard me, turned his head, and depressed the trigger on his fully automatic weapon. The wall in front of me blew apart in small chunks and then something spun me around knocking me to the dirt. In about a millionth of a second I laid there trying to figure out what just happened and if I was on my way to the afterlife. 

Everything was quiet, too quiet. It was as if I had been hit before I heard the sound of gunfire. I scrambled to my feet and ran forward out of view of the window. I looked around for any immediate threats and established a dominant position in the event insurgents presented themselves to me I would be able to fight them off. Damn near at my feet I spotted a weapons cache of AK-47’s, RPG’s, grenades, RPK machine guns. This had been a fighting position for someone or somebodies.

 I knew second squad was on my right flank but they were dealing with their own bad guys in their sector. I glanced down and saw my sleeve was ripped apart and my left side was covered in crimson. I yelled back to Mike Hanks who already knew something had happened. I told him I was hit and I had to cross back by the window. He posted himself on the wall, raised his weapon, and began scanning the area for any threats to me.

“Come on Sergeant Conner, I got ya covered!” I ran a few steps, dove under the window, scrambled back to my feet and burst through the hole in the wall from which I had entered. As I was running everything went silent again, and when I made it through the wall my celebration of surviving was short lived. I saw guys running by me and everyone was scrambling. I didn’t know what happened. Once again sounds started coming back to me. The horrific sounds of “CORPSMAN! CORPSMAN UP!” seemed to echo in slow motion in my head before coming full speed. Someone barked orders to take up positions, others called for the corpsman. I turned around to see what all the commotion was and that is when I saw the unmistakable frame of my 2D fire team leader being dragged back to the makeshift collection point. I looked at the body then I looked at my 1ST team leader, Bill Sojda. Bill was physically present but his soul appeared to have taken a leave of absence as there was zero expression on his face and he could not speak.

“Who is that?” I asked him. It was basically a rhetorical question. “Bill! Who is that?” He didn’t need to answer, I knew who it was. The whole platoon knew who it was. When the call went out over the radio I am certain the entire battalion knew who it was.

I did not know how to act. Doc Escanilla, one of our platoon corpsman, a little soft spoken Filipino guy, had been chasing me around trying to bandage my wounds and twice I shook him off; at one point I grabbed the poor bastard by his flak jacket and told him to get the hell away from me.

The man who I had been fighting with side by side for the last eight days; the man who I had witnessed conduct so many heroic and almost unbelievable acts was now gone. I did the only thing I knew how to do and regained control of the situation and began barking orders and directing the men into security positions. Once I was satisfied with our posture I almost collapsed.

“Can I get a bandage over here?” I called for the Doc and he tended to my wounds.

By the time Woodstock, Johnnie, Cam, and their crew showed up with the MEDEVAC vehicles, we were calling for the M1-A1 Abrams to come level the houses which lay in front of us. I had identified the targets and our SMAW section leader was on the phone on the back of the tank talking to the guys on the inside. They began shooting to mark the target.

The men of 1ST Platoon gently picked up the body of Mike Hanks, carried him gracefully to the back of the HUMVEE, and gently placed him inside. All was quiet and not a word was spoken. It was almost as if the enemy had stopped fighting us out of respect for this great warrior.

I had begged my platoon sergeant not to make me go back to the rear but he insisted I go get checked out (I had not yet really seen the extent of my wounds.)

“Look, go get checked out and you’ll probably be back in no time.” We both knew I wasn’t coming back and with that I turned control of the squad over to Bill Sojda. I climbed up into the back of the HUMVEE and as I studied the faces of the men I was leaving behind I realized after all we had been through, this was the first time I had seen the men look defeated. But they were not defeated, they would go on to fight and complete the Battle for Fallujah and secure the city for coalition forces and subsequently provide security for the elections which would be taking place in a couple months. And with that the vehicles sped off.

On the 17TH of November in the year of our Lord 2004, Michael – the Patron saint of militaries, the guardian of our troops – was watching over me in more ways than one. Is it a coincidence that the man who saved my life in battle and sacrificed his life so I may live mine shares a name with the Archangel? Think what you like, I have my answer.

In the movie “It’s A Wonderful life” Clarence makes a statement to George Baily: “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” This is so true. With regards to Michael Hanks, today my children laugh and play because Michael came into my life. My son, James Michael Conner takes his middle name from Michael Hanks. All the friends I have made and people I have met since the battle of Fallujah have been touched by Michael Hanks. My family have all been touched by Michael. For if Michael Hanks was not with me on the battlefield that day I most certainly would not be here today.  All the Marines I have trained and sent to Afghanistan may not have received the training I provided.  Anybody whose life I may have touched after 2004 has been touched by Michael Hanks. But all these events were made possible by the simple fact that Mike Hanks was there for me.

On that dirty, crumbling back street of a western province in Iraq, in a city known as “The City of Mosques”, Michael Wayne Hanks, through his actions, demonstrated the words Jesus told to his disciples: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 KJV) and on this day in 2004 Michael Wayne Hanks laid down his life for me.

Until we meet again warrior, I will be forever in your debt. Rest In Peace.

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Author: James Conner , USMC (Ret.)

I am a 20 year United States Marine Corps veteran. I spent 10 years as an infantryman participating in many overseas deployments to include multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently living in Ireland, where I am enrolled as a student at the University of Limerick getting my degree in Exercise Science. Certified Fitness Trainer, Sports Nutrition Specialist,  Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach.