By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2006 – Special operations forces personnel, so accustomed to operating in the shadows, stepped sadly into the light tonight as the Navy presented the widows of two SEALs killed in Afghanistan with the nation's second-highest military award for valor. Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter presented the Navy Cross to Cindy Axelson, widow of Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, and to Patsy Dietz, widow of Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz.
The ceremony was fittingly held here at the U.S. Navy Memorial. "These were our men," said Rear Adm. Joseph Maguire, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, at the start of the ceremony.
Axelson and Dietz were part of a four-man team inserted behind enemy lines June 27, 2005, east of Asadabad, Afghanistan, to find and kill or capture a key local militia leader.
Anti-coalition forces spotted them the following day and promptly alerted the militia forces. The SEALs fought valiantly against "the numerically superior and positionally advantaged enemy force," according to the citation that accompanied the awards. Three of the four SEALs were wounded and forced into a ravine, where they radioed for help. An MH-47 Chinook helicopter with eight more SEALs and eight Army troops aboard went to the rescue, but was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, killing all aboard.
Dietz and Axelson, though wounded, provided cover for their partner to escape. The teammate, whose name is being withheld to protect his identity, evaded the enemy for days before being rescued. He, too, received the Navy Cross at an earlier ceremony.
More than 300 family members, teammates and friends attended today's evening ceremony. A large contingent of sailors from SEAL Team 2 in Norfolk also journeyed to Washington to pay their respects.
SEAL teammates spoke about their friends during the ceremony. "These men are heroes, not because of the way they died, but how they lived as well," said Navy Lt. Brad Geary, who served with Dietz. He spoke of Dietz's quiet professionalism and sense of responsibility to the team, the Navy and his country.
Petty Officer 1st Class Dave Albritton spoke about Axelson, his SEAL teammate, much the same way. Albritton, who went through SEAL training with Axelson, said it became obvious early in the training that Axelson was a born leader -- a man all his classmates looked up to.
Winter said the two men "embodied the values of the Navy's elite SEAL community: courage, daring, ability and esprit de corps."
He said their combat service to the country deserves "special recognition and a special place in the heart of every American."
The nature of special operations missions means that the servicemembers who carry them out do not receive the public recognition for their exploits, Winter said. He called today's ceremony a rare opportunity for the American people to learn of the heroism and commitment of the special warriors, and the debt Americans owe them.
"In this war, special forces have been used in new ways and unprecedented numbers," Winter said. "They are precision weapons that are defeating a ruthless enemy."
Winter said the two SEALs honored today served on the frontlines of freedom in operations around the world. "Their insertion into an enemy-held area, surrounded by risk and danger, is typical of the kinds of missions that are routinely assigned to SEALs," he said.
Even after being wounded, both men "continued to fight the enemy with undiminished zeal, covering the extraction of the rest of their team while they stayed and fought," Winters said. "Putting the safety of their teammates ahead of their own, they displayed extraordinary heroism in combat."
Winters uttered two words -- "extraordinary heroism" -- he said "perfectly capture their last selfless acts on this earth."