When retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry pinned the Bronze Star on retired Army Maj. Eric Phillips, it provided resolution to a long saga that began in Afghanistan in 2005.
Phillips had waited years to tell Eikenberry his story, and he finally got the opportunity on Sept. 8 when both attended the screening of the National Geographic documentary “American War Generals.”
In July 2005, Phillips was serving as commander of a convoy enroute from Kabul to Gardez when they ran into an ambush, he said. With his troops bogged down and taking fire, Phillips called in for air support.
As it so happened, Lt. Gen. Eikenberry’s helicopter was in the vicinity, so the Apache gunships escorting him were called away to help Phillips’ convoy, he said. With the help of airpower, his convoy was able to push through the ambush and get back to base.
When Phillips got back to base, he was beaming with pride over how his troops had handled themselves, but then the rug got yanked from underneath him. Phillips was told he needed to submit a detailed report of why he requested the air support.
“I was told specifically, ‘You pulled the general’s aircraft off of him and he wants to know, ‘Who was that [expletive]who made that call?” Phillips recounted in a Sept. 12 interview.
That’s not exactly what Eikenberry thinks happened, he told Military Times after the documentary screening. While he doesn’t remember exactly what happened afterward, Eikenberry surmised he probably asked what happened to the troops who needed the air support.
“It wouldn’t have been an inquiry about, ‘I want to know why those Apaches disappeared,’” Eikenberry said in a Sept. 12 interview. “It would have been: ‘What was the result?’ Now, who knows in the world of hierarchy how that finally gets translated down to the unit. The unit might get it and the whisper around the table by the time it gets back is, ‘The commander wants to know why he lost his Apaches.’”
But at the time, Phillips thought his career in the Army was over. Then a miracle happened: His report explaining why he requested the air support was “perfect” and the issue went away, he said. However, when Phillips was later considered for a Bronze Star for his deployment in Afghanistan, it was downgraded to a lesser award.
Then came a twist: Eikenberry, upgraded Phillips’ award to the Bronze Star.
Eikenberry explained to Military Times that he did not recall the Apache incident when he upgraded Phillips’ award, which was for his entire deployment, not just the ambush.
“I occasionally restored awards that had been downgraded (and did so on appeals even after leaving command) when I assessed circumstances, contribution, and norms warranted such action,” Eikenberry said.
Phillips, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, vowed that if he ever met Eikenberry in person, he would let him know that he was challenged for calling in air support but also thank Eikenberry for recognizing his service by upgrading his award to a Bronze Star, he said.
Out of the blue, Phillips was invited to the screening of “American War Generals,” which features Eikenberry. At the event, Phillips showed Eikenberry the Bronze Star and award citation, which his wife kept in her purse.
“I told the general, I said, ‘Sir, I had no intention to take your protection away from you,’” Phillips said. “I told him, ‘When I put in a call for help, you get whoever is available and they bring the appropriate resources to you. You’re not placing an order – I want this strike aircraft – you don’t do that. You’re frantically making a call and then you’re reengaging with the combat situation that when you’re in.’
“When I gave him that perspective, he got emotional – as did I – and he said, ‘I’ll never forget this story that you’ve told me.’ The exact words that I said were, ‘You’ve made my day,’ and he said, ‘You’ve made my year.”
It was an emotional moment for Eikenberry when he pinned the Bronze Star on Phillips’ jacket.
“My late father once told me that all that matters in life is if on your last day you are content with whom you see you in the mirror,” Eikenberry said. “In this regard, Eric’s story helped me greatly.”