“For heroic achievement … Lance Corporal [Billy W.] Peixotto exhibited exceptional bravery after intense small-arms fire from an enemy ambush resulted in his tank catching fire. He immediately dismounted his tank while still under enemy fire, activated the fire extinguishers, and assisted in the removal of leaking fuel bladders. While actively saving his tank from flames, he saw that his company commander had been struck by enemy fire. Showing little regard for his own safety, he retrieved his fallen company commander. Pulling his wounded commander to safety, he quickly rendered lifesaving medical assistance and provided security with his M9 9MM pistol until his company commander had been safely evacuated …”

The above boilerplate is from a proposed citation for a Bronze Star for Valor presently being processed by the Marine Corps. What really happened is that after Billy Peixotto’s tank was ambushed by Iraqi Special Republican Guard and Jihad mercenaries, he had the guts to climb out of the burning vehicle – while heavy automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade fire was thumping against its armored hull – in order to activate the tank’s exterior fire extinguishers and put out the blaze that was endangering both tank and crew. Then he, other crewmembers and company commander Capt. Jeffrey Houston freed the tank’s leaking exterior fuel bladder, removing the source of potential future fires – while almost every bad guy in town was taking potshots at them.

Once the fuel bladder was tossed, Peixotto zigzagged like a broken-field runner – again while dodging enemy fire – back to his tank, where he attempted to restart that 70-ton awesome monster of destruction. The shot-up sucker failed to cooperate, so he again dismounted the tank, with slugs and rockets still smacking all around him, and when he hit the deck, he saw that Capt. Houston was down, badly wounded. Without hesitating, the young Marine immediately rushed to his CO’s side, pulled him to the shelter of the tank and provided battlefield first aid to stop the bleeding and prevent shock from loss of blood.

Throughout this nightmare, Peixotto protected Houston by engaging the enemy with scores of rounds of pistol fire. And while he held his attackers at bay, he simultaneously applied pressure to his fallen CO’s head wound – providing lifesaving medical assistance until the medics arrived.

Capt. Dave Bardorf, who led the docs to the rescue, said: “It was incredible. He was slowing the blood flow with one hand, laying fire on the enemy with the other and directing fire from a radio another Marine held for him.”

Where do we find such good men? And does a $5 scrap of metal embellished with a small red ribbon – the exact same medal awarded Jessica Lynch for being knocked out in a truck crash while attempting to flee a similar enemy ambush, and to an Air Force colonel for keeping good records – adequately express the nation’s gratitude for this hero laying his life on the line?

And here’s another highly pertinent question many Marines familiar with this particular action are asking: Is the Bronze Star really an appropriate award for such an extraordinary act of gallantry?

I went to my handy-dandy reference book that lists Medal of Honor recipients from our Civil War to the Vietnam War. There’s no question that Peixotto’s heroic actions would have rated him right up there with the best of the Blue Max crowd from any of these wars.

Based on my investigation (and had I been his commander), Peixotto would definitely have gone in for the Medal of Honor or at least the Navy Cross – the Marine equivalent to the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross.

As I said in last week’s “Defending America,” the awards system desperately needs vetting and overhauling. Meanwhile, great warriors such as Peixotto – and there have been a good number of such unsung grunt heroes in Iraq – seem to be getting shortchanged, even by the U.S. Marine Corps, the only service that hasn’t lost the warrior ethic and still takes care of its Marines in the style of Ray Davis and “Chesty” Puller.

But, obviously, there’s room for improvement: At the very least, the top Marine brass need to have a hard look at what their personnel weenies are doing in the awards department and give them a good shake-up.

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