This is definitely Trey Cram's year.
Not only did he and his wife Robin become parents of a son on Wednesday, but this young Marine Corps sergeant has been recommended for the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with combat "V" for valor.
A 1998 Chantilly High graduate, Cram, 24, is receiving the award for his work in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II "for heroic achievement in connection with combat operations against the enemy while serving as squad leader, Company B, 3rd Assault Amphibious Battalion," according to the accompanying citation."
"His tenacity under fire repulsed the enemy action and saved his Marines' lives," it continues. "Sgt. Cram's courageous actions, initiative and complete dedication to duty reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service."
Cram's parents, Anne and Russ, live in Centreville's Green Trails community. His sister Kelly is a freshman at Radford, and older brother Russell Jr. lives in Maryland. Another brother, Tommy, died of cancer in July 2000 at age 22.
Trey Cram's father, grandfather, uncle and cousin were all Marines, so it wasn't surprising that, after high-school graduation, he joined, too. He did boot camp at Parris Island and was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., from January 1999-January 2002. He drove amphibious assault vehicles — "I love it; they're basically floating tanks," he said — becoming a crew chief and then a section leader.
HE ALSO traveled to South America and West Africa to train the military forces there. Over six months, he was in 13 different countries, including Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Then came The Basic School in Quantico where, for two years, Cram was an assistant instructor teaching infantry skills. "It was fun," he said. "I liked teaching these things to the second lieutenants." There, he worked with Marine Maj. Eric Olsen, now retired.
"I was the aviation officer, he was a light amphibious vehicle instructor, and I'd coordinate air support with him," said Olsen. "Trey taught the new lieutenants tactics of armored-vehicle movements in combat. It's a difficult situation for a noncommissioned officer to be instructing officers. But he's smart and he commanded a lot of respect."
In March, Cram went with the 3rd Assault Amphibious Battalion to Camp Pendleton in California. "I knew we were going overseas, and I found out after I left that my wife was pregnant," he said. "At first, I was excited and ready to go, but then I wanted to be around for her and the baby. When we left [for Iraq] in May, we were told we were going to be there until March 2005, and I would have missed the birth."
His father drove cross country with him to Pendleton. "He kind of volunteered to take this job at Pendleton, knowing he could possibly go to Iraq," said Russ Cram. "When he left in the spring, I was extremely nervous, having already lost one child. But once he got there and called home, he made it seem like he wasn't in a hot zone, so I figured he wouldn't see a lot of action."
At Pendleton, he observed Trey's interaction with his platoon. "I saw that they had a tremendous amount of respect for him," said Russ Cram. "He knew what had to be done, conveyed it to them and they had confidence in him. And I've heard nothing but good things about him from his superior officers."
Trey returned to the U.S. in September and has been in Virginia since Oct. 5, awaiting the birth of his son. And though his parents worried about him while he was overseas, "I've always been a firm believer that whatever happens, happens," said Russ Cram. "And I had faith in him." Still, as a dad, he figured some extra insurance couldn't hurt.
"We're Catholic," he explained. "We bought him a St. Michael's medal — the patron saint of battle — and had Father Fasano of St. Andrew the Apostle bless it. Trey wore it every day there, and he said he felt comforted by having it on. And I know he felt that Tommy was watching over him, too — because there was an instance where a mortar round went off, right near him, while he was on patrol, and it didn't touch him."
NONETHELESS, he knew his son faced danger every day. "The scariest moment I had was [in August]," said Russ Cram. "Trey called from the Marine compound in Hit [pronounced 'heat'] on a Saturday night. And then he said, 'Dad, I gotta go — we're under fire.' The next day, CNN said four Marines had gotten killed, and it made me very nervous. It wasn't until Monday that he called back and we knew he was OK."
Before leaving Pendleton for Iraq, Cram's battalion received specialized training in "security stabilization operations" — peacekeeping — at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif. "Our unit was slated to leave in September 2004, but we left in May because they needed us early," he said. "We were in the Al Anbar province, close to Ramadi in western Iraq."
He said some Iraqis liked the American troops, but most didn't. However, he added, "They needed us to be there." Days in Iraq averaged 115-120 degrees, and nights, 80 degrees. There was no rain.
Although Cram wasn't able to perform his amphibious-vehicle specialty in the desert, he distinguished himself as an infantry squad leader. "It was hard to switch over, but I had a lot of experience with that at Quantico, so that helped me," he said. "At times we felt scared but, after awhile, you got used to the sights and sounds and reacted differently."
He and his men went on more than 50 patrols in and around the cities to keep the main supply routes — the major Iraqi highways — open for the rest of the Coalition forces. This meant clearing these roads of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and land mines. "A couple of them went off on us, but our platoon was lucky," said Cram. "We didn't sustain any casualties the whole time I was there."
He learned quickly about the deadly IEDs. "An IED is an artillery round with a blasting cap hooked to a detonation cord with electricity running through it," he explained. "A lot of them were remote-detonated. Some went off by [signals from] cordless or cell phones, garage-door openers — anything that picked up a certain frequency to detonate the artillery round."
The enemy would bury them about a foot deep in the dirt. Then, said Cram, "They'd wait for a convoy to come by and blow them up. When we found an IED, sometimes there'd be a triggerman nearby to detonate it. We called our explosive-ordnance team to come in and blow it up for us."
And that's what happened on July 20; while clearing a roadside, Cram found an IED and called a superior officer to report it. According to the narrative recommending him for a medal, "He then coordinated his fireteams to cordon off the area and sweep [it] for possible triggermen.
"ONE OF the fireteam leaders noticed an individual standing and watching from a hilltop on the east side of the road. Sgt. Cram sent one of his fireteams to apprehend the male observer ... Sgt. Cram's situational awareness and alertness prevented a potential fatal attack on his fellow Marines."
Four days later, on July 24, his platoon was just outside the towns of Al Muhamaddi and Aquabah when enemy mortars were fired at their observation post from two different points of origin. The narrative explains, "Despite impacts in and around the perimeter, Sgt. Cram [made sure his platoon members were safe] and provided leadership in the face of enemy fire."
The next day, July 25, mortars again hit the platoon's position — this time, with greater accuracy and a higher volume of fire. Cram then directed his men to respond to the enemy attack, and he led them in Humvees as close as possible to sweep the point of origin in search of any enemy forces still there.
"We took off after them," he said. "I could tell where they were shooting the mortars from. You can hear the rounds coming out of the tube; they've got a distinct sound and they're pretty loud," said Cram. "And we could see the smoke — that's how close they were — 1,600-2,000 meters away."
After that, his platoon continued clearing roads and also did some raids. Said Cram: "We detained people who we thought were either giving money to the insurgents or supplying them with the ammunition and weapons to attack us."
"Sgt. Cram's accomplishments are a direct reflection of his leadership, untiring devotion to training his Marines and his unwavering dedication to duty," states the narrative. "His contributions have directly contributed to the success of his Marines [as riflemen, even though trained for amphibious duty] in a demanding combat environment."
He found out about the medal in September when his unit was leaving Iraq. "I was pretty surprised," he said. "I was just doing my job." He expects to actually receive it in November and, he said, "I feel good about it. It made my dad proud, and that means a lot to me."
Knowing Cram, said Maj. Olsen, he's not surprised he's getting honored for something outside his occupational specialty. Still, he said, "It's a remarkable achievement. He went leaps and bounds above what a Marine sergeant is supposed to do. And it's rare for Marines to give out combat awards — [this one] is usually given to captains and above."
Proud of her husband, Robin, 23, said Trey's medal is "well-deserved." She's also glad he's safe at home: "I tried to keep a positive outlook but, deep down inside, I was really worried."
CRAM RETURNED to Pendleton on Sept. 19, and his family was there to greet him and his buddies with hugs and cold beer. "Everybody enjoyed the beer," he said. "And it was great to see my wife, her mother and my mom and dad."
After a few days, they returned to Virginia, but Trey got an emergency leave to join them, Oct. 5, after Robin called and said she thought she was in labor. She's been living in Fredericksburg, but will join him in Pendleton after Christmas, when their son, Brady Mason, is old enough to travel.
He doesn't expect to return to Iraq. His eight-year tour of duty ends in July 2006, and then he'll decide if he'll make the military a career, work with his dad in real estate or become a police officer. He said it's easy to take things for granted in the U.S., but his experience taught him to "appreciate being in America."
As for his father, he's "extremely proud" of his son. "He put everything he had into [his job] — he's one of the 'few good men,'" said Russ Cram. "Sometimes, when I read the words of the commendation, I get a tear in my eye. The Marine Corps is his niche — he really has become an exceptional young man."