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IU student receives Silver Star after tour in Afghanistan

By Jon Blau
September 15, 2012

Huddled inside a compound in Afghanistan's "Green Zone," marines listened to fighting outside the walls, hearing machine gun fire and a flurry of calls over the radio: "Haralovich is down. Chen is down. Tucker is down."

Staff Sgt. Alec Haralovich had been hit by two bullets and dropped to the ground during this battle in October 2011. Pursuing a "rabbit," a lone fighter who shoots and retreats to set up an ambush, Haralovich's patrol was drawn into an open field, within range of an enemy machine gun to the north. His unit was pinned down, exposed, to the east of a cluster of compounds.

Haralovich, along with Cpl. Matt Chen and Cpl. Kevin Tucker, had headed west and tried to outflank the initial ambush. They, too, confronted a concealed machine gun position on the building's other side. The bullets, Haralovich said, hit him like a "sledgehammer."

His next move would be documented in an award citation for the Silver Star, the military's third-highest honor. Chen and Tucker had been shot in an attempt to join their team leader, but Haralovich ordered them to back up and cover him. Trapped in the field with bullets whizzing by, he fired a rocket at the insurgents. He hit his targets and moved his soldiers around the wall's northwest corner, driving off the fighters who had disabled the patrol's other half.

After a two-hour chase for the enemy, his patrol returned to their outpost at the compound. His battalion was happy to see him alive. But, in war, pleasantries are quickly set aside.

"They were worried, and then you get back and they give you a hug," Haralovich said. "Then, we are like, 'Everyone is alive, Go stand watch.'

"It's work."

Haralovich, a 26-year-old student at Indiana University, received his commendation in late August, but remembers the battle with little glitz. "I did what anybody else would have done," he says.

The piece of body armor which absorbed a bullet to his left side is as cherished as the star. He has attached the green, book-sized armor plate to a hand-crafted plaque. If the armor had not been there, the shot could have shattered his pelvic bone, cutting the femoral artery and causing internal bleeding.

"I probably would have died a slow and painful death," he said from his porch in Bloomington, recalling details from medical training in the military.

A black bracelet around his right arm commemorates a comrade he lost during a rotation in Iraq. His thoughts cordon-off talk of heroism from an appreciation for teamwork and sheer luck.

He developed perspective from four deployments, including three in Iraq, "basically waiting to get blown up" by improvised explosive devices, he says. In Afghanistan, he walked from treeline to treeline, waiting for the first shot from enemy forces.

The military taught him to be a leader, something far from his imagination when he joined the Marine Corps as a 17-year-old in 2002. He wasn't the captain of sports teams growing up. The virtues of leadership were thrust upon him as a 19-year-old, when his sergeant tossed him three understudies before a deployment to Iraq. Their lives were in his hands.

By the time he had made it to Afghanistan in 2011, rotating from reserve duty to replace an active battalion in the Helmund Province, Haralovich had grown accustomed to being the "leash holder," as he calls it, deploying a group of trained marines against opposition forces less than 100 feet away. He gauges would have been the distance of his enemies from a deck chair, pointing across the road.

"They are pulling, wanting to bite," Haralovich said of his unit. "They want to fight and they want to give it to them. It's like having this leash, giving some slack and then pulling it back in."

For the most part, he remained on his radio, barking orders. His soldiers did the shooting. Between engagement they would feed Afghan children candy. Haralovich grew a persona all his own, his thick mustache a trademark with the boys and girls.

"I'd be laughing at the kids inside, but kept a very stern face, because if something happened, if you were friendly with them, they wouldn't listen to you," Haralovich said. "So, when I came up to them, I was like the angry father figure, saying 'Get inside!' — the big scarey man with the mustache."

While part of his group's mission was to be "a pain in the butt for the Taliban," relieving pressure for infantry units farther south, Haralovich said his main task was to gain the trust of the Afghan people. Violence against his unit, or the residents he protected, resulted in equal violence in response. "Most of the enemies we faced, we destroyed," Haralovich said. When the Taliban forced their hand, he found encouragement from locals, often in the strangest of ways.

Once, during a fire fight with insurgents, an old man dodged bullets and straddled a wall to present Haralovich a tray of tomatoes, cheese and goat's milk.

"I was like, 'Dude, get the hell out of here, get inside,'" Haralovich said. "And he's like, 'No, it's OK, you eat, you shoot them.' It was unreal.

"I took a bite and said, 'Get the hell out of here.' I am not going to turn down fresh tomatoes. Are you kidding me?"

Haralovich is now working his way toward starting a business with his cousin: a food cart downtown for late-night drinkers.

"There isn't much to eat down there," he said, "and we are well-versed in drinking late at night and looking for food."

The main offering will be perogies, with variations featuring artichoke and spinach or black bean. He is also working toward a degree from IU in international studies, which has been delayed more than a few times by military responsibilities.

He doesn't know if he'll be called back again, but, if he does, Haralovich isn't worried. The camaraderie he has found as a marine is like nothing else he has experienced. The men he served with hold equal claim to any medal sitting behind his door.

"You couldn't ask for a better team. In the circumstances that I got the Silver Star for, I am very lucky," Haralovich said. "I lived through that, and I simply did what I think anyone else would have done."