On 10 August 2012, Sgt Abbate* was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. On 14 October 2010, the day he performed the actions referenced in his award citation, he was a member of 3/5’s scout/sniper platoon. Capt Marston was his platoon commander. Sgt Abbate was killed in action on 2 December 2010.
Lately there has been much discussion of ethics in the Corps; therefore, I think it is especially important for Marines to have modern day heroes who they can look to for example and inspiration. In the realm of ethical principles, Sgt Matthew T. Abbate was a Marine who possessed a depth of clarity and purpose that few ever obtain in life. With these thoughts as a backdrop, I’d like to share some anecdotes that I hope will convey who this Marine really was.
When I wrapped up my tour of duty with 3d Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5) last year, I received orders to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego where I was assigned to serve as a series commander. One of my responsibilities in this capacity is to introduce the next generation of Marines to our institutional values of honor, courage, and commitment.
When I teach recruits about core values, one thing I tell them is that as long as they wear the cloth of this Nation, they will have a duty to work hard to strengthen their minds and bodies so that they will always be ready for the rigors of combat. This is a component of our foundational virtue of honor. Sgt Abbate took this warrior virtue very seriously. One time, just before we deployed to Afghanistan, I told him and the other sergeants in the platoon that I wanted them to keep the training schedule relatively light in order to give the Marines some downtime before we deployed. At the end of the day, I caught up with Sgt Abbate and asked him what he had decided to do with his “light day.” He looked me in the eye and said, “We didn’t do nothing, sir.” I looked back at him with surprise, as if to say, “Well, I know I said take it easy, but you and your Marines didn’t do anything at all?” After a moment of reflection, he replied in his unforgettable, laid-back California accent, “Well, of course we did a body slay, sir.” Later I found out that he and his Marines had been on a 5-mile “fun run” through the hills of Camp Pendleton wearing boots and utes. That was a light day for Sgt Abbate.
Sgt Abbate was also known to carry a 50-pound kettlebell in his pack when he went to the field. In the 110-degree heat of Enhanced MOJAVE VIPER in Twentynine Palms or the 10-degrees below 0 cold of the Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, he would pull out that kettlebell whenever and wherever he and his Marines had an opportunity. To Sgt Abbate, that was just the kind of thing that principled warriors did.
Another one of the values that officers teach recruits about in boot camp is patriotism and the nobility of service to country before self. Sgt Abbate’s patriotism was overt and unapologetic. A large American flag covered almost all of the wall space in his cramped barracks room. He packed that flag in his seabag and proudly hung it wherever he happened to be billeted. When Sgt Abbate and his Marines occupied Patrol Base Fires in the northern Green Zone of Sangin, Afghanistan, one of the first things they did was raise that flag atop the position. Then, totally on their own initiative, they proceeded to conduct semiformal morning and evening colors ceremonies every single day for the rest of the deployment. Undeterred by firefights, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), casualties, and the grind of daily operations, Sgt Abbate’s Marines continued to raise and lower his flag even after he was gone.
Another component of the Marine Corps’ professional ethics that recruits learn about in boot camp is valor. Marines must have the physical courage and mental toughness to face the enemy in combat and prevail. Saying it in a comfortable classroom is easy, but actually getting Marines to do that has been a fundamental challenge of combat leadership throughout history. Combat is a uniquely human endeavor. It certainly has its scientific and technical elements, especially nowaday, but at the rifleman’s level, where battles will always be decided, the primary consideration is overcoming, or at least pushing through, some very raw emotions and sensations. Regret, loss, fatigue, boredom, loneliness, and most of all, fear: these are the “human factors” that Marines must overcome in order to fight with valor. Each generation of combat leader is faced with the challenge of imparting this sense of aggressiveness, camaraderie, and valor in their men. Combat leadership was an area where Sgt Abbate excelled like no other and I’d like to tell you how he did it.
First off, Sgt Abbate was kind. He had an easygoing, good-natured charisma and a way of making everyone he knew feel like they were his best friend. Perhaps that was because everyone really was. His heart was just that big. After he graduated as the honor graduate from Scout/Sniper Team Leaders Course, I hired him to be a section leader in the platoon. I did it even though there were several other Marines who were senior to him. Ever humble, he protested, saying he didn’t deserve it. Initially I had concerns that he was so easygoing and amiable that he wouldn’t be a decisive leader. I wasn’t sure if he would be firm with his Marines. Well, I was right—at least partially. I don’t think he ever did speak to any of his Marines harshly. But what a leader. Sgt Abbate had a way of inspiring loyalty and respect without ever resorting to a dictatorial approach. He was the perfect fighter/leader. He simply did what needed to be done, all the time, without complaining. Other Marines couldn’t help but follow his example.
Second, Sgt Abbate was just cool. When the platoon ran the obstacle course for physical training, Sgt Abbate was the one who would always bring a portable stereo and blast heavy metal music while we wore ourselves out. That was just how he did leadership. He was a potent mix of old-fashioned kindness and bad boy, James Dean-style “cool.”
On the wall of his mud brick hooch inside Patrol Base Fires, scrawled on a long strip of brown Hesco barrier felt, hung Sgt Abbate’s “gunfighting commandments.” Almost everyone who stayed at Fires for more than a day or so eventually heard about and read the commandments. They became a sort of rallying cry for many 3/5 Marines. The commandments sum up Sgt Abbate’s determination to fight hard and take care of his buddies. They also offer some insight into just how cool of a dude he really was.
• Thou shall never leave wire without bandana containing at least 4” of slack.
• In any situation . . . thou shall blaze.
• Nothing matters more than the brethren to the left and right . . . thou shall protect no matter what.
• When going out in a hail of gunfire . . . thou shall pop dem nugs until thy body runs dry of blood. . . . nd look hella sick.
This was Sgt Abbate’s command guidance and it was more effective at inspiring loyalty, respect, and valor than any official command guidance that ever graced a sheet of Department of Defense letterhead stationery.
Less than 1 month into the deployment, many Marines aboard Patrol Base Fires, some of them senior in rank to Sgt Abbate, had adopted not only the attitude prescribed by his commandments, but also the physical accoutrements; NCOs were even known to hold prepatrol inspections in which they would meticulously measure the slack in their Marines’ bandanas. Don’t ask me where they found the rulers. This wasn’t cowboy-ism or immaturity; it was young Marines expressing their determination to prevail over the human factors of combat. With Sgt Abbate’s quiet encouragement, these young men found a way to express their righteous intent to fight with valor through the symbols of their generation. In a ritual, tribal sort of way, they were making a visible display of showing each other that, if and when the time came, they intended to channel John Rambo—bandana and all.
Sgt Abbate was a man of unsurpassed moral principle and ethical character. You might not figure this out, though, unless you got to know him on a more than superficial level. Let’s just say his physical appearance wasn’t the type found on recruiting posters. In this regard, Sgt Abbate probably epitomized the Marine Corps’ scout/sniper community. He had a haircut that was barely within regulations. He had a voracious appetite for heavy metal music. He had full sleeve tattoos that covered both forearms. He rode a massive, noisy “hog” motorcycle, and if you called his cell phone and got his voicemail, he would tell you: “You’ve reached Sergeant Abbate. If I’m not here, then I’m either riding or blazing, or sometimes both.” The odd thing was, no matter how many times I heard that message, the image of Sgt Abbate sitting atop his Harley, blasting away with a machinegun, with his fabulous hair blowing in the wind, somehow always seemed plausible, as if maybe that’s really where he was.
But Sgt Abbate was indeed one of the most principled men I think I will ever meet, and his ethical standards broached absolutely no compromise. On 14 October 2010, the date referenced in Sgt Abbate’s Navy Cross citation, he and his Marines were presented with a moral dilemma that would confound most people. The enemy had ambushed the Marines in an open field, but a small mud brick compound nearby seemed to offer cover. Training instincts immediately kicked in and several Marines sought protection and advantageous firing positions inside the compound. What they didn’t know was that the house was rigged with over 20 IEDs. Marines later called it the “house of hell.”
When the first Marines entered, Sgt Abbate and the rest of the group with him heard the signature dull thud of fertilizer-based homemade explosives. They knew their friends were inside bleeding. With enemy machinegun, small arms, and rocket-propelled grenade fire raining down on them, Sgt Abbate and the Marines outside the house pondered their options, basically having two choices: stay outside and fight off the ambush or charge into the house and try to save their wounded comrades. Marines argued, perfectly reasonably, that they had no business entering that house. They had no idea how many more IEDs awaited them inside. Clearly, the enemy had intentionally booby trapped the only place of cover nearby for the sole purpose of luring Marines inside, and the Marines shouldn’t play into the enemy’s hand.
To Sgt Abbate, though, none of this mattered. To him, the decision wasn’t about tactics, it was about ethics. What he told the man next to him at that point is a window into Sgt Abbate’s extreme moral clarity. He told him, “We might go down, but we’ll go down doing what’s right.” With that, Sgt Abbate grabbed a metal detector, took point, and rallied the Marines around him to charge headlong into that house. As fate would have it, they probably saved lives that day by not hesitating.
So as we take stock of what we believe in and stand for as warriors, it is worth remembering that we need ethical heroes like Sgt Matt Abbate to look to for inspiration. Long hair, tattoos, and all.