Michael Wells will tell you he was only doing his job that day in 2008. Surrounded by gunfire, with unknowable threats waiting around any street corner, he did nothing more than try his best to protect the comrades who were counting on him.
On Friday, Wells was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the fourth-highest honor a U.S. service member can receive, in a small ceremony in Moscow attended by family and close friends. U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, presented Wells with the medal, awarded in recognition of Wells’ bravery in protecting his platoon during a military operation in Sadr City, Iraq.
“It is my greatest honor to work with our military heroes and to share in the joy and pride that’s appropriate on an occasion such as this,” Crapo told attendees. “I want to thank (Wells) for his loyal, brave and heroic actions, which saved dozens of lives in the service of protecting and honoring our Constitution.”
A 2004 graduate of Colville High School, Wells enlisted right after graduation and in 2008 was on his second tour of duty in Iraq as a specialist in the U.S. Army. After being wounded by an improvised explosive device on his first tour, for which he received the Purple Heart, he took four months to recover before redeploying for another 15 months in the field.
“I remember at that time, all I wanted to do was to be with my platoon,” Wells said. “I had this sense of duty to be with my comrades. They wanted to fly me out of theater when I was wounded, and I said ‘No, I want to stay with them.’ ”
Wells was on patrol with his platoon on April 20, 2008, a pretty ordinary day, Wells remembers. His unit’s primary duty at that time was to run patrols and provide route clearance for combat engineers and specialist teams participating in Operation Gold Wall, working to construct a massive wall blocking Iraqi insurgents from operating in a key part of Sadr City. As a Bradley gunner, Wells’ role was to man an armored vehicle and clear the path of IEDs.
Not long after rolling out on that day’s mission, Wells spotted several IEDs lining the platoon’s route. Neutralizing explosives was an everyday part of his job, but these were no ordinary IEDs; they were a particularly lethal variety, capable of taking out heavily armored vehicles and entire platoons. His quick thinking allowed him to neutralize the explosives before they had a chance to harm him or his comrades, and the mission was able to proceed as planned.
Later that afternoon, Wells’ unit ended up in an unexpected and intense gunfight. As enemy gunfire rained down from rooftops all around them, Wells laid down suppressive machine gun fire that held attackers at bay long enough for medics to treat wounded members of the platoon.
In a video compiled by Crapo’s office to surprise Wells at the award ceremony, Wells’ former commanding officers commended his bravery during that mission and emphasized that without his quick moves, many more lives would have been lost.
“(Wells’) quick decisions, courage and superb marksmanship ensured mission accomplishment and protection of his comrades during fierce and intense fighting,” said Lt. Millard Stewart, leader of Wells’ platoon. “His actions on April 20, 2008, live up to the battalion philosophy of ‘Fight Like Hell’ and is in keeping with the finest traditions of military achievement upon himself, the Silver Lions Battalion and the United States Army.”
Though the fighting was intense and the losses heavy – several members of Wells’ platoon were killed or wounded during the mission – Wells returned to more of the same the very next day. He remained in the field for seven months before returning home and ending his enlistment.
“I’m not going to lie, I was scared. But I didn’t have time to be scared,” Wells said. “And the only thing that I could think about was my fellow comrades and to act in the best ability for myself and for them. Afterwards, I didn’t have time to grieve because the next day we were under the next mission. And the guilt of my fallen comrades didn’t really come to me until I returned home from Iraq.”
When he returned from Iraq, Wells enrolled in college, earning a law degree from the University of Idaho. The intense schoolwork kept his mind busy as he began to heal from what he’d seen and done in the field.
Wells now practices law in Moscow, specializing in Veterans Affairs cases. The majority of his clients are Vietnam-era vets dealing with the repercussions of Agent Orange decades after their service, and Wells said being able to use his own experiences to relate with his clients and working to redress the wrongs of the past has helped him to feel a sense of accomplishment and service since coming home.
Wells and his wife, Allison, have two young daughters, who Wells said keep him going, the brightest spot in each of his days. The best part about receiving the Bronze Star, Wells said, is being able to show his kids that he’s done right by them. He’s grateful for the honor and a little relieved at the small sense of closure the award brings.
“At the end of the day, in my mind, they’re just medals,” Wells said. “I was doing my job, and anyone in my shoes would have done the same thing.
“I kept my head down and looked out for my fellow comrades,” he continued. “I’m glad I made it home safe, I’m still alive and life moves on. The world is always turning.”