WASHINGTON - As an Army Ranger and Green Beret, Sgt. Maj. Rick Lamb has seen his share of action. He was shot at in 1989 while taking part in the capture of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and suffered a serious head wound rescuing fellow soldiers from the dusty hell of Somalia seven years ago.
But it was supposedly mundane sentry duty in Korea 16 years ago that just earned him one of the nation's highest medals for valor. The Army awarded Lamb and three former soldiers the Silver Star this month for engaging in a fierce firefight with North Korean troops and saving a Soviet defector on the day after Thanksgiving in 1984.
The Silver Star ranks behind the Medal of Honor and a service cross for battlefield gallantry. Others receiving the Silver Star, with their rank at the time of the action, are Capt. Bert K. Mizusawa, Spec. John E. Orlicki and Private 1st Class Mark A. Deville. No date has been set for conferring the medals.
"Awards are strange," says Lamb, 41, a block-like soldier now with the 10th Special Forces Group in Germany who speaks in a clipped drawl that is equal parts Army and Iowa.
"I'm definitely proud of it," he says during a brief interview during a stopover at the Pentagon. "A little bit of guilt with it." He recalls that a friend, Sgt. Casey Joyce, who lies in Arlington National Cemetery, has a lesser award pinned to his uniform for giving his life to save comrades in Somalia.
"He's laying there in a box with a Bronze Star," Lamb says quietly, looking away. "Here I am walking upright."
Lamb also has a Bronze Star, for his efforts in Panama, though no accompanying "V" device that would signify valor.
Lamb and his comrades were approved for the Silver Star after Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, other lawmakers and retired officers pressed the Army to recognize the soldiers' courageous efforts.
"I'm very happy to see these brave, patriotic Americans get their due," says Rohrabacher. "People who risk their lives in combat for their country shouldn't have to beg and wait for recognition."
Lamb and dozens of others who took part in the 1984 firefight also are to receive the Combat Infantryman's Badge, an award prized by foot soldiers, a simple badge depicting a silver musket on a blue background bordered by a wreath, signifying that a soldier withstood enemy fire.
Lamb was a 24-year-old staff sergeant patrolling the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on that November day when a military radio crackled with the sound of gunfire. He raced with his squad to the scene of the shooting and saw a man huddled in the bushes, pleading for help. It was a 22-year-old Soviet Embassy trainee from Pyongyang named Vasily Matuzok, who was immediately rushed to safety by U.S. soldiers.
Lamb and his squad then moved forward toward the estimated 40 North Korean troops and were met with rapid fire from AK-47 assault rifles, which Lamb remembers tearing through the foliage behind him "like angry bees."
He and about 30 Army soldiers flushed the North Koreans from their hiding places and pursued them. A ferocious firefight ensued.
During an intense 40-minute exchange of small-arms fire, a South Korean soldier was killed and an American soldier was wounded. The North Koreans lost three soldiers and had several more wounded before U.S. and South Korean soldiers surrounded them. United Nations officials in Seoul, alerted by the North Koreans, eventually arranged a truce.
Lamb is to be honored for charging the flank of the North Koreans, which stopped their initial advance. Officials say his aggressiveness was crucial to the success of the operation and rescuing the defector.
Army officers said the encounter marked the first gunfire at the DMZ since the 1953 armistice and the most intense firefight involving U.S. soldiers since the Vietnam War. But it was a mere Cold War footnote, generating only two days of headlines.
In describing events for Army officials last month, Lamb said that for all his combat experience since then, "I can honestly say I've never witnessed a better-executed operation than the firefight at Panmunjom. ... The almost reckless bravery of those young, green leaders was nothing short of heroic."
Shortly after the fight, Lamb and two other soldiers now approved for the Silver Star received a lower-ranking award, an Army Commendation Medal, with a valor device. A fourth, then-Capt. Bert Mizusawa, was awarded a Bronze Star with a "V." Three other soldiers who received Army Commendation Medals for the action had those medals upgraded this month to Bronze Stars with a "V."
"Soldiers did their job well that day, just as they've done their job well for 225 years," said Mizusawa, now a special assistant to Army Secretary Louis Caldera and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. "One of my hardest jobs during the firefight was holding my soldiers back."
But lawmakers and retired officers argued that the Army played down the 1984 action and restricted the awards.
A year before the Korean firefight, the Army had come under sharp criticism for awarding 8,612 medals and infantryman's badges for the relatively low-risk U.S. invasion of Grenada. The medals outnumbered the 7,000 U.S. troops on the island.
"My review convinces me that the heroism of the ... soldiers under fire was not appropriately recognized by the Army in 1984," Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, wrote to Caldera last month. "They performed successfully in close-range combat, while under intense fire, with little notice."
Coincidentally, Inouye was awarded the Medal of Honor last month by President Clinton for heroic actions in Italy during World War II. Inouye and other Japanese-Americans received the medals after the Army determined that, possibly because of racism, their valor may have been downplayed at the time.