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Public Affairs : 2013 Nininger Award

Army Aviator, USMA '05 grad, receives 2013 Nininger Award 

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor
(Updated Sept. 18, 2013-10:03AM)
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Sept. 16, 2013) — It's a sound unforgettable to any Soldier in combat. The snap of small arms fire as it cuts through the air, breaking the sound barrier—something Capt. Anthony Fuscellaro became familiar with and spoke about when he addressed the Corps of Cadets at Washington Hall Sept. 11 upon receiving the Alexander R. Nininger Award for Valor at Arms.

It was August 2009 and Fuscellaro was a new Kiowa Warrior pilot-in-command, four months into his deployment in Afghanistan when his team was called upon to assist an Engineer platoon ambushed on Highway One near Kandahar City.

The zips, pops and snaps of fire were complemented by whistles of RPGs and thuds from anti-aircraft fire from heavily-armed insurgents surrounding the 20 Engineer Soldiers. Twenty-five minutes into the engagement Fuscellaro’s team had to refuel and rearm, already destroying dozens of enemy fighting positions but the insurgents kept activating new ones. After more than 90 minutes into the intense fighting, Fuscellaro said they had expended all their ordnance once again. However, to leave the Soldiers pinned down inside their armored vehicles would have sealed their fates.

“My team analyzed every option, looking for a clear course of action,” Fuscellaro said. “None was ideal. If we left the scene, the insurgents would overrun the Engineers. But if we stayed, all we had left were our personal firearms—M4s—to defend ourselves and suppress the insurgents.”

Personal firearms are a last resort, according to Army Field Manuals, and Fuscellaro said using them with any sort of effectiveness would almost guarantee they would be hit, or worse, lose the aircraft.

“But in combat you often have to continue without clear solutions,” Fuscellaro said. “The fog and friction of war that we all read about here is real.”

The team quickly decided to stay and fight.

“We would use our aircraft to distract fire from the exhausted ground troops, flying slowly at tree-top level, shooting the M4 to draw fire away from the engineers so they could escape the kill zone,” Fuscellaro said.

Fuscellaro positioned himself on the left side of the Kiowa, firing two magazines of 5.56 rounds on each of two passes. They received heavy fire but the diversion worked. The Engineers were able to maneuver their vehicles out of the kill zone and escaped.

“My point in telling you this story is that there was no clear course of action, and still we were forced to make a decision based on our adapting tactics, assessing the enemy’s tendencies and, above all, making an imperfect and rapid risk analysis,” he said. “You will face difficult spontaneous decisions too, in this war or the next. When you do, trust your judgment, your critical thinking abilities and rely on your training.”

Fuscellaro told the cadets to go beyond the standards in training. Had it not been for the intense training and senior leaders who demanded every round fired was a direct hit, Fuscellaro said those Engineers and the scout weapons team may not have survived that day.

“Set the bar very high,” he said. “Your Soldiers will rise to your expectations. Also, you will find that the various challenges here at West Point are building your ability to think and act under stress. Combine demanding training with your West Point leadership education, and you will successfully lead our nation’s sons and daughters.”

Pictured are Robert McClure, West Point Association of Graduates CEO and president; U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr.; Capt. Anthony Fuscellaro; and Jodie Glore, WPAOG chairman. 
                                              Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO

U.S. Corps of Cadets First Captain Lindsey Danilack presents Capt. Anthony Fuscellaro with the bronze cadet bust as a token of appreciation. 
Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO

Capt. Anthony Fuscellaro, a U.S. Military Academy Class of 2005 graduate, was honored at a banquet Sept. 11 at the Cadet Mess as the eighth recipient of the Alexander R. Nininger Award for Valor at Arms.
                                         Photo by Anthony Battista/DPTMS VI

The Nininger Award for Valor at Arms medallion and a bronze cadet bust were presented to Capt. Anthony Fuscellaro, U.S. Military Academy Class of 2005 graduate, during a banquet at the Cadet Mess Sept. 13.
                                             Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO

Fuscellaro is the eighth recipient of the award presented by the Association of Graduates which recognized the Army aviator for his personal bravery and leadership. The banquet was also attended by the first recipient of the Nininger Award, Maj. Ryan Worthan, Class of 1997 graduate, and the 2011 recipient, Capt. Ross Pixler, ’05 graduate, as well as a representative of the Nininger family, John Patterson, nephew.

It was only fitting that Fuscellaro received the award on the 12th anniversary of 9/11. He and his West Point classmates were just beginning their journey at the academy as plebes when terrorists attacked the nation only 50 miles away.

“My class, 2005, and many others, know first-hand the exhilaration and, at times, the near despair, of ‘Keeping Freedom Alive.’ Ten of my classmates made the ultimate sacrifice,” Fuscellaro said. “Most recently, Capt. Scotty Pace, a fellow Kiowa Warrior pilot, died in a crash following a firefight in Afghanistan last year.”

Fuscellaro acknowledged previous award recipients from his class and others who have distinguished themselves in combat.

“I accept this award on behalf of them all with special thoughts for our two most recent combat losses—Maj. Jaimie Leonard (Class of 1997), and Capt. Sara Knutson (Class of 2007). Both were killed in action this spring while I was in Afghanistan,” Fuscellaro said. “While the Long Gray Line keeps us strong, we are all diminished when Taps is played for our fallen comrades.”

U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., introduced Fuscellaro to the audience by recognizing the occasion with the commemoration of the day which “birthed a new generation of Americans who saw their country attacked and decided to do something about it.”

“And over the last 12 years, men and women have answered the call of duty,” Caslen said. “Men like Maj. Worthan, Capt. Pixler and Maj. Fuscellaro, and they answered that call of duty to stand in the path between the evil that’s out there and the values of our nation and our way of life.”

“Tonight we have an opportunity to learn and to hear from a leader who did the right thing when no one was looking—a true leader of character. Tony Fuscellaro stepped forward and accomplished his mission with a great degree of competence, valiantly supported by the Soldiers whom he had come to trust, and probably more important, who had come to trust him. Capt. Fuscellaro, we are very proud of you and your service to our nation and to the Soldiers of the United States Army.”

More About the Nininger Award

Visit the West Point Association of Graduates website for an additional story, transcript of Capt. Fuscellaro's speech and a list of past Nininger Award recipients.

For details, go to