Editor’s note: We are publishing Col Patty Klop’s story to reinforce the importance of speaking openly about PTSD and other mental health issues and to encourage veterans to ask for help. For information about resources available to veterans, visit: https://www.mca-marines.org/blog/resource/resources-for-veteran-marines/
My name is Patty Klop. I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I am not ashamed. I am a wife, mother, sister, and a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Following seven weeks of PTSD treatment in March of 2022, I received the most precious gift of my life—the empowerment to live life with joy and contentment.
As much as I prefer the privacy of my personal and professional life, especially since I am still serving in the Marine Corps Reserve, I am taking a tremendous risk by sharing my PTSD story. However, the worst thing I can do is to keep this gift to myself. Assuming the risk of being transparent and vulnerable as a senior Marine Corps officer, I feel it is my obligation to my sisters and brothers-in-arms to share this incredible gift as encouragement and possible inspiration.
In April 2006, I returned from a seven-month deployment to Iraq (Ramadi and Fallujah) in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I had a hard time adjusting to post-deployment life. Reflecting back during this difficult period, I now realize I was experiencing PTSD symptoms. The uncontrollable rage and angry outbursts were shocking and damaging to my family. I had never acted like that before.
Through Military One Source, I was referred to a counselor who assessed my symptoms of agitation, sleep disturbance, low energy, depressed mood, and irritability. At this point in my life, I was unmarried and had no children.
From May to October 2009, I deployed as the officer in charge of Personnel Retrieval and Processing (PRP) Detachment, also known as mortuary affairs, to Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. As the first Marine Corps mortuary affairs unit to deploy to Afghanistan, we were assigned the daunting task of establishing the first Marine Corps Unit Collection Point. As a PRP team, we provided care in handling and preparing human remains for evacuation and subsequent repatriation to next of kin. This was an emotionally fatiguing job with repeated traumatizing experiences.
When I returned home from Afghanistan, I anticipated having the best year of my life with my recent promotion to lieutenant colonel, getting married, and surviving a combat deployment. I thought my exposure to a war-torn and under-developed country and the conditions of how the Afghan people lived would remind me of how good I have it as an American and to live life to the fullest. I thought I would see life through a perpetual optimistic lens, enjoying life for all its worth and embracing each precious moment.
On the contrary, I had one of the worst years of my life, as my emotions, especially anger, were out of control. The first six months of marriage was turbulent. I was irritable, easily agitated at the slightest annoyance, and extremely jumpy. My husband and I attended marriage counseling funded by Military One Source. I did not think my marriage was going to make it.
Col Patty Klop with her two sons. Courtesy of Col Patty Klop, USMCR.At this time, my PTSD symptoms were extremely severe with anxiety, agitation, anger, depressed mood, low energy/chronic fatigue, irritability, impatience, hypervigilance (extreme sensitivity to my environment’s noises, temperature, and activities), trouble sleeping coupled with haunting nightmares, loss of interest in activities that I used to enjoy, and feeling like my skin was crawling. I was not aware I had PTSD until our marriage counselor shared her insight about my symptoms.
Our counselor referred me to a psychiatrist who prescribed me anti-anxiety medication. I was reluctant to take prescriptions as I felt I reached an all-time low by taking medication for my mental health. I was a senior Marine Corps Officer. I should have control over my emotions and behaviors.
During the summer of 2010, I remembered vividly the moment I knew my prescription medication had taken effect. I was painting the spare bedroom, and I honestly felt my irritability and tension lifting and departing from my body. I finally felt relief and a calmness I had not experienced since I returned from Afghanistan. I instantly knew my experience of relief and calmness was the therapeutic effects of my prescription medication. I now knew that prescription medication was appropriate in my time of need.
In the military, and especially in the Marine Corps, I believe there is a stigma in admitting mental health problems and that pursuing treatment may be perceived as being weak. There is an expectation in the military to handle problems on one’s own.
I was fully aware of this stigma and that pursuing mental health treatment was counter-culture to the Marine Corps, especially as a senior officer. I was willing to take this risk because I needed help. I was not the same person when I returned from Afghanistan. My PTSD symptoms were progressively spinning out of control and negatively impacting my marriage.
According to the Stress Continuum Model on the Marine Forces Reserve website, I felt like I was living in the “yellow zone” of reacting while slipping forward and backward between the yellow zone and the orange zone. Just give me a lame excuse to advance into the orange zone and I pounce! I like to blame my hot-tempered Irish, fighting spirit as an excuse for my behavior. To be honest, I would like nothing more than to be confrontational, close the gap between me and my offender, and give them a piece of my mind after only the slightest provocation.
I also felt I was unworthy to receive PTSD treatment because I did not think I was qualified in meeting the criteria. I had a false impression that I needed to be an extremely burned-out combat veteran with severe and debilitating PTSD about to hit skid row to be admitted to inpatient PTSD treatment.
On the contrary, to successfully receive intense PTSD therapy, the veteran must be functional to a degree that enables him or her to be fully present, engaged and to participate in the process of individual counseling and group sessions as well as completing writing assignments.
When I finally checked in to the inpatient facility, I was still shell shocked from life and eager to get the help I desperately needed. When I arrived, all of my doubts that I was not worthy of PTSD treatment, that I did not meet the criteria of PTSD treatment, and that I should not take a seat reserved for another combat veteran, vanished instantly.
After a couple of days, I knew with every fiber of my being that I was in the right place. The PTSD treatment deeply resonated with me because it was exactly the relief that I was looking for. I was able to unpack the burdens of my PTSD, disarm them and hit the reset button on my life. It felt like God sent his best guardian angels to my flanks to pull me out of my pit of PTSD hell. My disposition slowly improved from dark ominous stormy clouds to clear blue skies.
Initially, I struggled with baring my soul about my traumatic combat experiences to a civilian who never served in the military a day in her life. As combat veterans, I sense we have a common mentality that only another combat veteran will understand us, which is true to an extent. Outside of therapy and a few close military comrades, I would certainly never share my combat experiences with anyone.
My therapist did not serve in the military. However, she was an expert in trauma and was unequivocally the best therapist I encountered after 16 years and more than 10 therapists. She may not have served in the military or in a combat zone but certainly understood my trauma and helped me navigate to a healthier state of mind.
If I was stuck in a mentality that my therapist’s credibility and qualifications were as a combat veteran rather than a specialist in trauma, I would regret in missing out on her expertise. My narrow mindset would have truly prevented me from fully embracing the healing power of my PTSD treatment.
What I Experienced in PTSD Treatment
PTSD treatment was like a sanctuary for warriors to begin the healing process from the invisible wounds of combat trauma, which is what I desperately longed for the last 16 years of my life. The Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is a self-discovery process of identifying thought patterns, emotions and behaviors that were weighing me down from living my best life. I was immersed in a safe and nurturing environment where I was fully accepted without condemnation or shame of myself, my PTSD diagnosis or my past.
What I Did Not Experience in PTSD Treatment
I did not experience a lecture or an unending infomercial of how screwed up I was. I honestly felt like damaged goods but not once did I receive unsolicited advice about how I was doing life wrong, or how bad and destructive my behavior was, or how out of control I was in being a wife and a mother. Not once did I receive condemnation, shame or disapproval for my PTSD diagnosis.
Instead, I was guided in a self-discovery process of exploring my thought patterns, which were challenged and rewritten towards a healthier baseline. Thoughts lead to feelings, feelings lead to actions, and actions lead to results. Everything begins with thoughts, which are produced by the mind. The mind is a battlefield!
What I learned in PTSD Treatment
I approached my health holistically: mental, social, physical, and spiritual health. The mind, body and spirit are connected. The best metaphor to describe wellness is imagining the four legs of a table. Each leg represents a major component of health, to include physical, mental, social, and spiritual.
If one leg of the table is too long, then I am spending excessive time in that component of health, such as physical exercise. If one leg of the table is too short, then I am neglecting that component of health, such as my spiritual fitness. The legs of my table must be equal in length in order for me to reap the benefits of optimal health. If the legs of my table are not equal in length, then my foundation is wobbly.
If I stand on my wobbly table, there is a propensity for accidents and injuries that could have been prevented. My table is my foundation for life, especially in the daily grind; therefore, my table must be leveled to create a strong base and prevent the perpetual accidents and injuries that life throws at me.
Exercise serves a purpose for my physical and mental health. Exercise is my personal medicine for my PTSD symptoms, as it is a natural elixir to remedy anxiety, depression and stress with no negative side effects that medications may have. I definitely experience a positive change in my mood when I exercise. Conversely, I definitely experience irritability when I do not exercise.
Due to feeling chronically tired all the time and trying to lose a few pounds, I also pursued whole food, plant-based nutrition, as the health benefits are profound in achieving optimal health, preventing diseases and managing weight.
Health is one of the most important predictors of happiness. When it comes to health, my motto is “pay now or pay later.” In other words, there’s no successful procrastination option in taking care of your health. If you take care of your health today, you are preventing avoidable chronic health diseases. If you take care of your health tomorrow, you are reacting to avoidable chronic health diseases. Investing in my physical health was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I will never regret it.
Author’s note: This article is dedicated to my loving family and to the amazing staff at the VA Fort Thomas Division Trauma Recovery Center, Fort Thomas, Ky. I owe a debt of gratitude to this facility for giving me the most precious and invaluable gift that I have ever received in my life, which was the empowerment to live life with joy and contentment. My eternal gratitude!
Editor’s note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense visual information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement. The views presented are strictly of the author and do not represent official policy positions nor imply endorsements by the U.S. Department of Defense or any of its military services.
On Oct. 14, 1962, photographic evidence produced by an American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft revealed the construction of Soviet medium-range nuclear ballistic missile sites in Cuba a mere 90 miles off the southern coast of the continental U.S. Additional reconnaissance flights on Oct. 15 and 16 confirmed site construction as well as the presence of numerous ballistic missiles. One month prior, at the height of the Soviet Union’s military buildup in Cuba that began in 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had warned Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that “if at any time the Communist build-up in Cuba were to endanger or interfere with our security in any way …. or if Cuba should ever …. become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.” Although Cuba’s budding military relationship with the Soviet Union and the deployment of Soviet advisors and operational ground and aviation units to Cuba increased American-Soviet tensions, the presence of nuclear-capable offensive missiles brought the two superpowers closer to a direct military confrontation than at any point during their 47-year Cold War.
In both open and back-channel discussions with Soviet officials, President Kennedy demanded the construction of the sites cease and that the missiles be removed. To convince Khrushchev of his resolve, Kennedy ordered a U.S. invasion force, including more than 35,000 Marines, into positions off Cuba and throughout the Caribbean in anticipation of having to take direct military action. Among the tasks assigned to the II Marine Amphibious Force in military contingency plans was the largest amphibious assault since Okinawa in 1945 aimed at seizing the Port of Havana and follow-on amphibious and ground asaults to expand the perimeter of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. Drawn from documents maintained by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md., and the Marine Corps archives at Quantico, Va., this article reveals—for the first time to many—the Marines’ roles in the planning and execution plan for the invasion that never was.
Marines and Initial Invasion Planning
The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved America’s first Cuba invasion plan in July 1959 following communist revolutionary Fidel Castro’s brutal six-year struggle to remove Fulgencio Batista from power. Designed by a multi-service team of planners in Admiral Robert L. Dennison’s U.S. Atlantic Command, Operation Plan (OPLAN) 312-60 called for a brief air campaign followed by an Army XVIII Airborne Corps’ assault on the Jose Marti and San Antonio de los Banos military airfields south of the capital at Havana. After 19th Air Force transports delivered additional Army ground forces to seize the Port of Havana, the Second Fleet’s Atlantic Amphibious Force would land an armored regiment at Regla inside the port to assist in capturing the capital. Planners later changed the armored regiment’s insertion from sea to air. After toppling Havana, the American ground force would have to clear all remaining pockets of resistance east to the Guantanamo Bay. Planners estimated it would take 30 days to complete the invasion.
The Marine Corps did not participate in OPLAN 312-60 planning and, in the event of an invasion, had no role other than defending the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and providing fixed-wing attack squadrons for air strikes. It is unclear as to why Marines were more or less left out, though the most plausible explanation was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s open animus toward the Marine Corps and the service’s diminished role in the national defense strategy. With the nuclear triad of missiles, submarines and bombers syphoning off most of Eisenhower’s defense budget beginning in 1953, the Marine Corps endured a more than $40 million budget cut and an end-strength reduction of over 60,000 Marines between 1954 and 1959. The Marine Corps’ 21st Commandant, General Randolph M. Pate, known more for his administrative acumen, overlooked his service’s bloated supporting establishment and deactivated six infantry battalions and six aircraft squadrons in 1959—a more than 30 percent reduction in combat strength—and left the remaining battalions and squadrons to function at 90 percent and 80 percent manning levels. Eisenhower’s misguided policies and Gen Pate’s misplaced priorities kept the Fleet Marine Forces chronically understrength and incapable of supporting contingency plans like OPLAN 312-60.
The Marine Corps’ scene changed dramatically in 1960 when General David M. Shoup became the 22nd Commandant. Restoring operational readiness as the service’s primary focus, Gen Shoup chose to downsize training and support commands and used a 3,000 Marine end strength increase authorized by newly elected President Kennedy one year later to bring the Fleet Marine Forces back to full capacity. Under Kennedy and Shoup, observed Marine Corps historian Edwin H. Simmons, “technical capabilities had caught up with doctrinal aspirations.” The likelihood that current events would lead the Joint Chiefs to modify the invasion plan were high as were the chances that the Marines would play a part given the changes as a result of Shoup’s operational focus and Kennedy’s defense strategy.
OPLANS 312-61 and 312-61 (Revised)
The January 1961 Department of Defense (DOD) study “Evaluation of Possible Military Courses of Action in Cuba,” outlining potential courses of action “in view of increased capabilities of the Cuban Armed Forces and militia” and the Soviet military buildup on Cuba was a clear indication that Marines would have a role in invasion planning and a possible invasion. Specifically, DOD officials included in the study the forces available for an invasion, namely the U.S. Atlantic Fleet’s “two carriers, a Marine Division, and a Marine Air Wing.” When Admiral Dennison reconvened invasion planning in February at the direction of the Joint Chiefs, he invited Fleet Marine Force Atlantic planners to help develop the ground scheme. The resultant OPLAN 312-61 added an amphibious assault by a Marine brigade to seize the Port of Havana.
Concepts derived from Major General Robert E. Hogaboom’s Fleet Marine Force Organization and Composition Boards in 1955 and 1956 offered planners integrated Marine air-ground forces at the expeditionary unit to force level for rapid deployment anywhere in the world by sea and air. With the prospects of a presidential decision to invade Cuba could come with little-to-no notice, the inclusion of fast landing forces, flexible emergency plans, and pre-loaded combat supplies on amphibious ships in contingency were now essential and part of every discussion.
Intelligence gleaned from the botched Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored Cuba invasion by anti-Castro exiles in mid-April 1961 brought Atlantic Command planners back together. Of particular concern were reports of Soviet-made tanks and antiaircraft systems and a Cuban ground force of upwards of 75,000 soldiers. In turn, planners produced OPLAN 312-61 (Revised). Remaining in were the air strikes, airborne assault on the military airfields, seizing Havana, and defeating all Cuban forces between the capital and Guantanamo Bay. The most significant change was an amphibious assault east of Havana and a series of land and sea-based attacks by II Marine Expeditionary Force. The Atlantic Amphibious Fleet commander, Admiral Alfred G. Ward, recalled, “We would plan on where the Marines would land, plan what cruisers would be needed in order to provide gunfire support, and what would be necessary to protect these landings.”
Concerned that President Kennedy might order military action with very little notice, the Joint Chiefs directed ADM Dennison to develop a more synchronized invasion scheme. Although the concept of operations and force composition remained intact, OPLAN 314-61 now had more elaborate time strictures governing force deployments, the air campaign, and the time between the airborne and amphibious assaults. The changes had no impact on II Marine Expeditionary Force’s plan completed during the summer of 1961.
II Marine Expeditionary Force Operations Plan 312-61
Marine Corps HUS-1 helicopters with HMR-262 take off from USS Boxer, during operations off Vieques Island with the 10th Provisional Marine Brigade, March 8, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.)
II Marine Expeditionary Force’s involvement coincided with General Shoup’s directive that Fleet Marine Force Atlantic and Pacific headquarters also function as expeditionary force-level command elements during division/wing-level exercises and contingencies. Lieutenant General Joseph C. Burger, in addition to commanding Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic, activated and assumed command of II Marine Expeditionary Force in June 1961. Explaining to Leatherneck that same month that being “prepared to react in the shortest possible notice” was his focus, LtGen Burger oversaw the detailed planning and completion of both Fleet Marine Force Atlantic Operation Plan 100-60 and II MEF Operations Plan 312-61. Burger’s blueprint for keeping 25,000 Marines ready involved quarterly brigade-size amphibious assault exercises on Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island with several smaller exercises taking place at Camp Lejeune in between. Doing this kept one third of his units assigned to II Marine Expeditionary Force Operations Plan 312-61 embarked and within a few hours transit time from Cuba.
In the event that President Kennedy ordered an invasion, the II Marine Expeditionary Force owned four major tactical tasks; one within each of OPLAN 314-61’s four phases. In Phase I (Counter the Threat to Guantanamo and Prepare for Offensive Operations) LtGen Burger was responsible for defending the naval station. To do this, the battalion afloat in the Caribbean would land and immediately take up positions the length of the demarcation line separating the naval station from sovereign Cuba. Burger would then fly 2nd Marine Division’s “ready” battalion and a regimental headquarters directly to Guantanamo Bay where it would absorb an armor platoon, an engineer detachment, and an artillery battery deployed from Camp Lejeune as augments to the naval station’s permanent Marine Barracks.
With the 2nd Marine Division (minus those defending the naval station) and 2nd Marine Air Wing’s helicopter squadrons embarked on amphibious ships at Little Creek Amphibious Base near Norfolk, Va., and anchored off Camp Lejeune, N.C., the II MEF deployed to the Caribbean for Phase II (Position for Operations).
Once off Cuba, two helicopter squadrons had to relocate to Guantanamo Bay to support 2nd Marine Division elements there. Meanwhile, Marine fixed-wing squadrons transitioned to either aircraft carriers or to the Naval Air Station Key West, Fla., and the Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico.
On the order to invade, 2nd Marine Air Wing’s fixed wing squadrons would strike Soviet and Cuban air defense systems and ground forces in and around Havana and near Guantanamo. As a counter to Cuban and Soviet infantry, armor, and mechanized formations defending Havana, planners tasked the Army’s 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division with landing 10 miles east at Tarara and sweeping southwest and then north into the capital. For this to happen, 2nd Marine Division, in Phase III (Assault Havana Area) and “in coordination with airborne and surface-landing of Army forces,” had to establish a beachhead at Tarara. The division’s two infantry regiments reinforced with engineers and armor and supported by an artillery regiment would then attack west to seize the Morro Castle and the Port of Havana.
During Phase IV (Assault Guantanamo Area) operations, the II Marine Force re-embarked amphibious ships for “assault landing operations” in conjunction with 2nd Marine Division elements attacking west from the Guantanamo Bay. A consolidated II MEF would then attack toward central Cuba and link up with the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps and the 1st Armored Division. Planners assessed that major combat operations would take 60 to 90 days to complete.
President Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs grappled over invading Cuba. The Joint Chiefs’ perspective was that in addition to Castro’s growing military capability and ongoing Soviet military buildup, the failed CIA-sponsored invasion exposed gaps in Cuba’s defenses such that if an invasion were to happen, it should be sooner rather than later. Surprisingly, Gen Shoup disagreed. In his novel “The Best and Brightest,” journalist David Halberstam recalled how Shoup’s primary concern was the size of the invasion force needed to control the island and American casualties. To elaborate, Shoup placed a map of the U.S. on an overhead projector and covered it with a transparent map of Cuba. Drawing attention to Cuba’s vastly smaller size in relation to the U.S., he covered the two maps with a transparency containing a small red dot. When asked what the red dot represented, Shoup explained it was the size of Tarawa before adding, “It took us three days and 18,000 Marines to take it.” Whether or not Shoup influenced Kennedy’s decision is unknown. Talk of an invasion, however, subsided. By the summer of 1962, the U.S. and Soviet Union were once again on the brink of war.
Editor’s note: Read Part II of “U.S. Marines, Cuba, and the Invasion that Never Was,” in the October issue of Leatherneck.
Author’s bio: Dr. Nevgloski is the former director of the Marine Corps History Division. Before becoming the Marine Corps’ history chief in 2019, he was the History Division’s Edwin N. McClellan Research Fellow from 2017 to 2019, and a U.S. Marine from 1989 to 2017.
The U.S. Air Force C-17 began its final descent in preparation for landing. Corporal Von Straight sat packed in among the 25 Marines of his stick. Gear of every sort filled the expansive interior of the aircraft, leaving barely enough room for the Marines, as Straight contemplated the mission ahead. What that mission was he did not fully understand, but it was Afghanistan. After watching Marines fight there for most of his life, Straight yearned to finally have his turn. Would it be a fight, though? Nobody seemed to know. The Marines aboard the plane could never have imagined the world in which they were about to spend the next two weeks.
The aircraft touched down at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in the capital city of Kabul during the early morning hours of Aug. 14, 2021. A few other personnel from 1st Battalion, 8th Marines had arrived earlier, but as a combat engineer, Straight’s squad arrived with the advance party.
Events on the ground outside the airport had decayed rapidly over the weeks prior. The Afghan government and military, propped up by the U.S., collapsed under a Taliban onslaught in every city and province. After vacating Bagram Air Base on July 1, the airfield at HKIA stood as the last American toehold in the country. U.S. soldiers and Marines from Joint Task Force-Crisis Response operated out of HKIA preparing for the possibility of a noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO). The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, with 1/8 attached, and Central Command’s Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines attached, were called in for support as the situation deteriorated.
As Cpl Straight prepared for the coming evacuation, the entire world watched events happening outside the perimeter wall. On Aug. 15, Taliban forces surrounded Kabul and Afghan President Ashraf Ghazi fled the city with numerous other officials of the American-backed government. Afghan army soldiers threw away their weapons and melted into the civilian populace. Taliban flooded the city and seized control of the country. American helicopters evacuated more than 5,000 personnel still on the ground at the U.S. embassy.
News of the takeover spread quickly, and civilians massed at the airport in fear for their lives. The sudden lack of Afghan soldiers left holes on the airfield perimeter, and crowds seized the opportunity.
Straight was working with his team processing civilian contractors for evacuation as night fell on the 15th when a frantic call suddenly rose over the radio. Someone across the airfield said they were under fire and civilians had breached the perimeter. The Marines joined forces with Turkish soldiers and moved out. Ambient city lights washed out all night vision devices so vehicles trailed the line of Marines pushing over the open ground, illuminating their way.
Sparks jumped off the tarmac in front of Straight. A vehicle-mounted machine gun behind him opened up on a shadowy figure hiding in a ditch. As they continued, a C-17 lumbered through the darkness down the runway. Marines dodged the aircraft and took cover as it throttled up on an emergency takeoff. Farther ahead, a line of black-clad men carrying AK-47s sprinted across the field. By the time the sighting made its way up the chain for permission to engage, the men disappeared into a distant crowd.
Two shots cracked through the air past Straight’s head. He stopped in his tracks. He’d never been shot at before.
“My platoon sergeant standing next to me started dying of laughter as he saw the thought process working through my head,” Straight recalled. “My first thought was that I was not wearing my eye protection, like I was on another damn field exercise at Lejeune or something. We saw the guy who shot at us on the edge of a crowd, but he disappeared. Things just got progressively worse from there.”
When dawn rose on the 16th, just a few hundred Marines and U.S. Army soldiers occupied the airfield amid a rising tide of civilians. Estimates range as high as 24,000 civilians breaching the perimeter. A brief and unintended firefight broke out between Marines and Taliban with two Taliban killed. Air Force airplanes made last-minute emergency takeoffs through the crowds on the runway. At midday, civilians on the ground recorded the now infamous footage of people clinging to the outside of a C-17 and bodies plummeting from the sky as they lost their grip after lifting off. Apache helicopters flew back and forth over the flight line mere feet off the ground, forcing people back with their rotor wash. Nothing worked. The crowd proved largely peaceful but refused to budge.
The swell of people reduced as night fell. No planes would land or take off as long as they remained on the tarmac. Afghan special forces arrived and used extreme crowd control tactics, beatings and shooting civilians who stubbornly refused to retreat. Finally, after more than 24 hours of effort to regain control, U.S. forces reopened the airfield.
Cpl Mike Markland waited in Qatar with the remainder of 1/8 for a flight to Kabul as different news agencies reported the fall of the city to the Taliban. Some Marines were told to prepare for a landing under fire. No one knew what to expect or what was happening on the ground.
As Markland’s C-17 waited for permission to take off, another aircraft landed nearby and stopped on the runway. The aircrew from Markland’s plane exited and ran over. Marines stirred and grumbled over the delay as the C-17 crews gathered around the landing gear of the other plane. Markland eventually learned that the body of an Afghan civilian remained lodged inside the aircraft, crushed beneath the landing gear and frozen solid by the frigid temperatures at high altitude during the flight.
Markland’s plane finally departed and arrived at HKIA on the night of the 16th after the airfield was secure. Upon their arrival, the Marines from 1/8 set up around the north and east gates of the airport to process civilians for evacuation. Markland reached North Gate and climbed above the wall. People were spread out as far as his eyes could see. Strands of concertina wire placed outside the wall lay flat beneath discarded clothes, luggage, and bodies shoved over them.
Marines pushed outside the gate, fighting to create space between the wall and the crowd. They screamed at the top of their lungs for people to get back or sit down. Civilians screamed back at the Marines and at each other, holding aloft every kind of paperwork imaginable that they hoped could get them out of the country. Marines scanned for threats as civilians crushed in, and warning shots filled the air, originating from any nationality present with a rifle. Taliban soldiers lurked along a road running parallel to the wall less than 100 meters away beating and shooting people who didn’t comply with their orders. Afghan army soldiers waded into the crowd outside the gate beating and shooting people for the same reasons.
“Nothing in your life gets you ready for something like that,” reflected Markland. “I was immediately met with something so different from anything I ever thought I would encounter; a situation I never even realized could happen with humanity. Everything you’ve learned as a man and as a Marine is constantly being used. It became exhausting very quickly.”
The young Marines knew Afghanistan as a war zone for all of their lives. Many of the older Marines had fought there on previous deployments but were now there under the pretense of an NEO, not combat, and they expected some form of order to make that happen. The chaos that greeted them left everyone looking to each other to determine what was acceptable and what was not.
“We wanted so badly to help these people,” Markland said, “but the only thing messing up the order and regulation of everything was the people. It’s like a two-edged sword. Any time you help one person, everyone sees that, and they get all riled up.”
In one example outside North Gate, Cpl Benjamin Lowther stood shoulder to shoulder with other Marines keeping civilians back. The crowd grew agitated and surged ahead. Warning shots and screaming filled the air. Suddenly, a can of tear gas erupted in the middle of it all. No one knew who threw it—a Marine, ANA soldier, or one of the other nationalities present. Marines withdrew back toward the gate to shut down processing until the crowd settled. As Marines backed away from the gas, civilians pushed ahead into the void, crushing some of their own beneath the weight of an unstoppable mass.
Their momentum pinned Cpl Lowther against a thigh-high jersey barrier. He drew his service pistol and fired into the air but could not create enough space to free his legs. He shouted for help and two Marines grabbed hold of his gear. Pulling at his belt and flak jacket, they finally freed his feet and safely returned behind the gate.
Marines hardened themselves to maintain their sanity. One of the worst duties involved returning “rejected” civilians back outside the gate. With limited guidance from the Department of State (DOS) on what paperwork a civilian needed for evacuation, Marines ushered in people who did not meet the criteria. Other times, foreign nations brought in large groups without proper vetting and left them at the Marines’ entry control point. On one occasion, Cpl Markland helped bring in a man who had been shot in the genitals. They rushed him to medical care, but when he was stabilized, were forced to bring the man back outside the wall because he had no paperwork. Many other men, women, and children were forced back outside. Civilians resisted, begging Marines to let them stay, or pleading for the Marines to kill them. Unbelievably, they deemed this a more merciful death than being thrown out and left once more to the Taliban.
At the same time as 1/8 occupied North and East gates, 2/1 touched down in waves and moved to Abbey Gate. Unlike a typical combat deployment, the Marines arrived lacking much of the gear that normally came with them. They relied on whatever they could carry, but Marines being Marines, they quickly adapted.
“It’s like if Stephen King and Dr. Seuss got together and wrote a book, that would be all of HKIA,” recalled Gunnery Sergeant Melissa Marnell, a combat photographer attached to 2/1. “It was like the Wild West. Marines were doing anything they could to get by. I saw rifle squads traveling on bicycles, or entire sections moving on bulldozers or fire engines. I had no idea so many Marines knew how to hot-wire vehicles. If you found a vehicle and could get it started, spray paint your name on the side, and it was yours.”
Sergeant Dalton Hannigan served as the assistant team leader for a seven-man sniper team called Reaper 2. He went to work “acquiring” assets. An Army Ranger taught Hannigan how to hot-wire a vehicle, and he picked one out of many scattered around the airport. Now with wheels, the team made their way to the terminal.
Reaper 2 received the task of providing overwatch at Abbey Gate. The team set up in a two-story guard tower presiding over the outer gate and exterior wall of the airport. The position offered a unique perspective. A road led straight out from the gate below, and a high wall rimmed with concertina wire lined one side served as the airport’s outer wall. A shallow canal lined the other side of the road, running directly below the tower and continuing beyond the gate in the opposite direction. A pedestrian walkway ran along the opposite side of the canal with another tall, chain link fence separating the walkway from the rest of the city beyond. In total, less than 50 feet stood between the tower and the fence beyond the canal.
Turmoil enveloped the world within the snipers’ view. A sea of people pressed toward Abbey Gate from up and down the canal. Other Marines from 2/1 held the ground outside, struggling to keep the peace. The canal proved to be an open sewer, and the Marines nicknamed it “shit creek.” The smells of feces, urine, blood and decaying bodies rose into the tower, creating a toxic and intolerable environment around the gate, but the filth and stench failed to dissuade civilians. They waded through the knee-high water up to the side nearest the gate. Marines stood on the wall preventing some from climbing out and helping up others who showed appropriate documents.
Less than 200 yards down the road, a bridge spanned the canal, leading out of the airport toward the Baron Hotel. The British set up their base of operations there, processing people for evacuation. Maintaining the path of entry and exit for the Brits was critical.
Marines worked for hours clearing the road in front of Abbey Gate. The sheer weight of the desperate crowd seemed impossible to push back. After nearly 24 hours, 2/1 finally cleared the road out to the bridge over the canal. Engineers hauled in large shipping containers and placed them in a chevron-shape at the bridge, blocking vehicle entry to the gate.
The chevron morphed into one of the great incongruities representing those ending days of the war in Afghanistan. Taliban soldiers, operating in partnership with U.S. forces, occupied the chevron as an outer checkpoint. Their armed presence at this blocking position prevented the possibility of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) from reaching Abbey Gate. In theory, the Taliban also provided an initial screening of civilians for evacuation. To the Marines of Reaper 2 observing the Taliban from their sniper tower, reality appeared quite different.
“We saw people getting beaten and executed, but there was nothing we could do,” remembered Sgt Hannigan. “At different points, we’d see the Taliban sit down on the shipping containers and grab a couple kids and the kids would just sit up there with them. What the Taliban were doing with their families I don’t know. But it was just weird seeing a toddler holding their baby brother or sister, sitting up there in the heat alone with the Taliban.”
Random shootings at the chevron drove civilians into the canal, where they bypassed the Taliban checkpoint. The Taliban presence left everyone on edge although the crowd remained mostly peaceful.
Marines arriving at Abbey Gate found themselves in a position no training could prepare them for. DOS officials appeared sporadically and in short intervals over the first several days. They alone made the determination on “acceptable” documentation for evacuation. They operated inside the gate, however, and Marines outside acted independently to determine who should be let in. Every Marine recognized an American passport or green card and identified those rare individuals to be let in but what does a German work visa look like? Or an Australian visa? What if a civilian handed you a cellphone and an English-speaking voice on the other end claimed to be a congressman or a colonel or someone else “important” enough to vouch for the person who handed you the phone?
Complicating matters, guidance on acceptable documentation shifted constantly. Just like 1/8 experienced at North Gate, 2/1 Marines grew frustrated and exhausted as they processed civilians through to safety, only then to discover the papers they possessed were unacceptable. Hundreds of civilians fit inside the inner holding area at Abbey Gate awaiting DOS approval. Sometimes, more than 2/3 of these groups were forced back out.
Desperation grew as time passed. Families stood on the road or in the canal for days. Many succumbed to thirst and heat exhaustion. Whenever DOS personnel left or the airfield shut down flight operations, processing halted. The crowd grew agitated and teetered on the brink of rioting. Marines witnessed unimaginable scenes as men, women, and children trampled each other to death, were crushed against concrete barriers, or were left for dead in the canal.
Marines clung to a sense of decency. They wanted to help but felt incapable in the wake of so much terror and tragedy. Even so, opportunities arose. Without clear guidance, young Marines acted independently, making decisions that meant life or death for people outside the gate.
“The first couple days I was looking around to see everybody else’s reaction, or to see how they handled things, but eventually I realized it doesn’t come down to me asking somebody if I can do something if it’s going to help,” said Cpl Markland. “It came down to understanding that right now, no decision is the worst decision for these people.”
Markland found a distraught family at North Gate one day, just after they made it through the initial screening. The family of five entered HKIA, prepared to leave their entire lives behind with a single blue backpack. It contained all their money, documents, and whatever other possessions they could fit inside. Somehow, the backpack disappeared. The frantic mother approached Markland with broken English, explaining their bag went missing during the initial search. As Marines held the family off to the side, Markland backtracked into the holding area looking for the bag. He spotted a blue bag in the crowd, but another civilian claimed it. Markland finally gave up and returned. The mother begged Markland to take her with him to search a second time.
He knew the uncleared civilians presented a security risk and taking her back through the entrance created a problem for everyone else trying to get in. He also understood that without the backpack, the family would not have the required documents and would be kicked out. He took the risk. They walked 100 yards back towards the gate. The woman immediately identified her bag as the one Markland had noticed before and retrieved it from the other civilian, who offered no resistance. They returned to the rest of the family, who wept with joy and thanked Markland for his help.
At another point near North Gate, Cpl Straight received the task of guarding an Afghan interpreter named Reggie. Reggie served with U.S. forces as an interpreter in 2012, then immigrated to the U.S. and enlisted in the Marines. After serving his time on active duty, he returned to Afghanistan as an interpreter once more. Now, Reggie sought evacuation to the U.S., and Straight helped him search the crowds for his wife and children. Miraculously, they found Reggie’s family and got them on a plane.
In the personnel terminal, GySgt Marnell learned firsthand how the smallest of gestures meant the world to the civilians. She found a refrigerator full of water bottles and took several out to a crowd waiting to board their plane. After enduring the heat with no food or water for days, the people beamed with gratitude. Marnell and one of her Marines made trip after trip, emptying the fridge for the people outside.
“I’ve never seen someone so thankful for something so minor in my life,” she remembered. “That was the one time I was happy over there, doing something so small for those people.”
Of all the Marines immersed in the good and the bad playing out at HKIA, the Female Engagement Teams (FETs) held a unique role. Afghan culture dictated women and children could only be handled by females. Female Marines across the commands on deck formed together to support processing operations. The significant number of women and children present and the limited number of female Marines available required the FETs to work non-stop.
“They were being worked to a degree where they didn’t have any down time,” said Markland. “We at least changed between the gate, the airfield perimeter, and rest. They didn’t have that as much, it was just gate to gate to gate. And the things they were being used for, with the women and kids, was very emotionally draining.”
Some of the most widely publicized photos to come out of HKIA featured FET members caring for babies. Many desperate families handed their babies to Marines over the gates or left them lying outside where they knew Marines would rescue them, just to give the kids a chance at life. An orphanage was formed on the airfield to care for and protect all the children separated from their parents. Marines cherished the moments playing with all the kids, while wrestling inside with the terrifying reality surrounding them.
Marnell waited with three young girls for their flight out of HKIA. The girls and their parents were cleared and approved for evacuation, but the youngest of them was still unaware of their circumstances. The girl, only 4 or 5 years old, pulled off her bracelets and handed them to Marnell.
“You can have these,” the girl said. “I won’t need them when the Taliban kill me.”
Marnell stared, taken off guard. How could this be the thought of a 5-year-old? She noticed the girls all wore a cross on a necklace. She learned the girls’ parents were English teachers at a school. Marnell reassured the girls they were safe now, held them, and stayed with them until they boarded their flight.
As days passed, units at the gates adopted rest plans to finally relive those who had been on guard for days. Many Marines endured 72 hours or more without sleep. They cycled back for rest and witnessed some results of their work; C-17s loaded with civilians taking off.
By Aug. 25, the situation declined from bad to worse. The President’s deadline to withdraw from HKIA by Aug. 31 approached and the crowds understood their chances of evacuation diminished rapidly. Their desperation increased proportionally. Marines felt the pressure, not just from the crowd surrounding the airport, but from desperate people around the world. An avalanche of “special requests” overwhelmed the Marines. Thousands upon thousands arrived in every way imaginable; from the White House to the Vatican, from congressmen to retired colonels, foreign officials, or anyone with someone they knew still outside the airport. The senior officers at HKIA received emails from the highest levels of government. Lance corporals at the gates who still had working phones found their numbers somehow had gotten out, and they received texts or phone calls about specific people to look for in the crowd. Sometimes the special requests helped identify individuals in the sea of people. More often than not, the special requests, and corresponding efforts to act on them served only to disrupt or even cripple the mass evacuation efforts.
Credible threat streams reached the intelligence community. VBIEDs threatened North Gate with the civilian road running parallel to the wall. Suicide vest IEDs (SVIEDS) were suspected as well with detailed descriptions of bags and people to watch out for. The threat at North and East Gates increased so dramatically that both entrances permanently closed operations. Abbey Gate remained the only operational entrance for civilians to enter. By nightfall on Aug. 25, commanders decided to also close Abbey Gate for good.
Cpl Straight arrived at Abbey Gate the morning of Aug. 26 with the task of barricading the gate once Marines from 2/1 pulled back inside. The morning wore on and operations continued as normal, but no word came to shut it down. Straight asked around about the delay. The Brits continued operating out of the Baron Hotel with the road from Abbey Gate as their only means of reaching the airport. Until they ceased processing civilians, the Marines needed to keep Abbey Gate open.
The closure of North and East Gates forced an influx of people toward Abbey. Civilians filled the canal and walkway. The frustrated crowd boiled over, throwing trash left on the ground, and grabbing at the Marines’ gear. Marines used flash bangs and other crowd control measures but found little success. Some Marines witnessed one man hold a baby over his head as a tiny human shield when a flash bang exploded nearby. Other civilians threw their children at the wall in a last hopeless act.
“Moms were trying to give away their kids. They would throw the kids to us,” stated one Marine in an interview from Central Command’s declassified investigation into the attack at Abbey Gate. “We didn’t have a choice then because the kids would be hurt. You’d be surprised how many people threw babies. You have no idea.”
“They would throw the kids over the fence, hitting the ground,” stated another Marine in the investigation. “Throwing like baseballs. It was crazy.”
IED threats poured in, adding to the mayhem. Marines were told to look for a black backpack with white arrows, but bags and suitcases littered the entire area. Intel provided a full description of a clean-shaven man as a possible suicide bomber. Snipers from Reaper 2 spotted a man matching the description in the crowd and reported the sighting. Other Marines spotted suspicious individuals acting far too calm amid the chaos, observing the gate and taking pictures.
Several reports of an imminent attack arrived throughout the day. On at least one occasion, an incredibly specific IED report arrived with a countdown. Marines received the warning with 10 minutes until detonation, then reiterated at five minutes. Snipers in the tower took shelter and the search platoon outside the gate knelt behind a concrete barrier. Everyone remained sheltered well beyond the expired timeline before resuming operations. The substantial increase in threats led the Marines to collapse back from the road leading to the chevron and hold a small perimeter around the outer gate.
First Platoon from Golf Company, 2/1, assumed duty outside the gate, lining the canal wall directly below the sniper tower. Three FET members exited the gate helping to pull women and children from the canal. A U.S. Army psychological operations (PSYOPS) vehicle arrived at the gate to assist with crowd control. One official estimate placed 2,000 to 3,000 civilians at Abbey Gate. At around 5:40 p.m., roughly 30 minutes after the PSYOPS team arrived, a bomb detonated.
The suicide bomber stood on the opposite side of the canal, directly across from the Marines. The explosion immediately killed or wounded hundreds of people packed into the area beneath the sniper tower. Tear gas canisters held by Marines closest to the blast ruptured, spreading their contents in a cloud over the scene. Screaming civilians fled the area along the canal. Bodies piled against the canal wall, blocking their path and restricting escape.
Cpl Straight stood inside the gate nearly 200 feet away. Even at that distance, the blast wave knocked him off his feet. Sgt Hannigan had just returned to the sniper tower and parked his truck inside the gate less than 100 feet away. He immediately climbed up the tower and found several of his Marines dazed and concussed. He learned one team member, Sgt Tyler Vargas-Andrews, was wounded on the ground outside.
Marines sprinted from every direction toward the unfolding mayhem. Some assumed security positions, expecting a complex ambush or follow up IED. Gunfire filled the air after the blast. Several Marines interviewed for the CENTCOM investigation reported armed men in a building on the opposite side of the canal. Others witnessed men on their cellphones or taking pictures.
In the sniper tower, Sgt Hannigan ducked as three rounds struck a window facing the canal. The bulletproof glass splintered but stopped the incoming fire. Marines outside on the ground opened fire briefly, some at perceived targets, others blasting warning shots into the air to keep people back from the casualty evacuation efforts.
Marines grabbed stretchers, riot shields, and anything else that could carry the wounded. Navy corpsmen and Marines applied tourniquets and plugged puncture wounds with their fingers. The number of civilians, dead, alive, and wounded, piled up or running for their lives, complicated all efforts to help. The individual decisions of Marines on the ground remained the only thing holding the situation together.
A chain link fence separated the majority of the casualties from the Marines attempting their rescue. Thinking quickly, Reaper 2 team leader, Sgt Charles Schilling, grabbed a pair of bolt cutters and cut a hole in the fence. This single action dramatically reduced the time it took to reach the wounded.
Sgt Jonathan Painter received shrapnel wounds from the explosion but overcame the chaos and pain to set his squad in a security position along the canal before running into the tear gas to help evacuate the wounded. Cpl Wyatt Wilson was blown through the air with ball bearings peppering his entire body. Somehow, in spite of his own grievous injuries and the cloud of tear gas enveloping him, Wilson found another critically wounded Marine lying nearby and dragged him to safety until blood loss prevented him from going farther. Wilson passed the Marine off but refused care for his own life-threatening wounds. Numerous other Marines, corpsmen, and Army medics put themselves at risk to help their brothers and sisters, as well as the wounded civilians.
As of this writing, the majority of them have gone unrecognized. Sgt Schilling’s life-saving initiative making the hole in the fence is just one example of unrecognized actions. Sgt Painter received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with combat “V.” Cpl Wilson received a Bronze Star with combat “V.”
In less than 15 minutes, all American casualties, both dead and wounded, were evacuated to the initial casualty collection point. Medical facilities at HKIA overflowed. Aircraft departed with the most severely wounded. The rapid evacuation of casualties no doubt prevented more Americans from losing their lives. In fact, it happened so quickly that those responsible for patient tracking struggled to keep up, temporarily misidentifying some of the dead or wounded. In total, the explosion killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and initially wounded close to 30. This number grew in the following weeks as concussions and traumatic brain injuries connected to the blast were identified. More than 150 Afghan civilians died in the attack with an untold number wounded.
Following the evacuation, Abbey Gate fell eerily quiet. The civilian crowd disappeared, leaving stacks of bodies piled against the canal wall or floating in the water. The ground attack alarm blared from speakers across HKIA, providing the only background noise. Taliban soldiers remained at the chevron, where they observed and filmed the attack in silence. Engineers blockaded the gate. From then on, apart from special requests, evacuation operations ceased.
On the morning of Aug. 27, explosive ordnance disposal Marines conducted a post-blast analysis. They concluded the bomber utilized a suicide vest or backpack containing 20 pounds of explosives and hundreds of ball bearings. He detonated the device from the canal wall opposite the Marines outside the gate, only 20 feet away.
At noon, U.S. servicemembers gathered on the runway at the ramp of a C-17. One by one, pallbearers escorted 13 flag-draped caskets onto the aircraft. The lives claimed by the attack ranked as one of the highest numbers of U.S. fatalities in a single incident from the entire 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Marines spent the final days before the Aug. 31 deadline preparing to leave. Many engaged in the “demilitarization” of the airport. The intent was to deny the Taliban use of any military equipment. Hundreds of vehicles, aircraft, weapons, computers, radios, and every other type of gear imaginable would be left at HKIA. Commanders tasked the Marine and U.S. Army units with destroying all of it. Marines dropped thermite grenades through engine blocks, slashed tires, and smashed control panels to pieces. Sledgehammers, halligan bars, axes, and anything else they could find replaced rifles as their chosen weapons of opportunity. However, the “demil” order originated, the expectation of what should be destroyed swiftly expanded in its translation down to those carrying it out. At the gates, Marines were often left on their own to make life and death decisions for civilians. Now, throughout the airport, Marines were left on their own to decide what items warranted destruction.
“The Turkish military left their barracks, and we were standing in their living quarters,” remembered Cpl Markland. “We just thought OK, if we aren’t going to be here to use it, then certainly not the Taliban. We were going to do everything we could to make it uninhabitable for them. We were going to take away the amenities that anyone would appreciate.”
Marines smashed TVs and refrigerators. They broke apart tables and chairs. They forced open every locked door and demolished anything found on the other side. Across the airport, Marines everywhere unleashed nearly two weeks of pent-up anxiety and aggression. They felt helpless in the face of ongoing horror outside the gates. They thirsted for revenge in the wake of the attack that killed 13 of their brothers and sisters. Every window begged to be smashed. Every blank wall space looked naked without “F–K ISIS” in spray paint. Before them lay an entire base full of cathartic opportunity.
HKIA reserved a final bad memory for many Marines. In their last hours on the ground, Marines were ordered to police call the airport and clean up the destruction just completed. They were told that they took the order too far. They returned to specific areas to pick up the pieces and flip vehicles back onto shredded tires. Some unlucky few were stuck policing the areas where civilians waited in groups to board aircraft. Without adequate facilities, civilians defecated in whatever container they had or directly on the ground. Trash and filth of every kind imaginable remained. The police call seemed a fitting end to their time in Afghanistan.
The final American aircraft lifted out of HKIA before midnight on Aug. 30, completing the largest NEO airlift in U.S. history. Officially known as Operation Allies Refuge (OAR), 800 military or civilian aircraft evacuated nearly 125,000 civilians over a 17-day period.
The impressive numbers did little to assuage the feelings of the Marines who endured HKIA. Now two years later, the memories are ever-present, and reminders are constant. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, the Reaper 2 team member severely wounded by the blast, gave a compelling testimony before Congress in March, highlighting the questions and concerns about the operation echoed by many Marines. As recently as April, the Taliban announced they killed one of the key ISIS-K players who planned the bombing at Abbey gate.
In August 2022, on the one-year anniversary of the attack at Abbey Gate, Cpl Joe Laude worked through the contact list on his phone, checking in with everyone he knew from HKIA. Laude served as a machine-gunner with Echo Co, 2/1, working at Abbey Gate and rushing 100 meters to the scene of the attack to evacuate casualties after the bomb went off. An idea arose; rather than contacting everyone individually, what if he created a hub where everyone could come for community when they needed it?
“At that one-year anniversary, I already knew OAR veterans had a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of guilt and shame about their service,” Laude said. “I needed to do something.”
He formulated a plan and worked with others to develop the idea. The group founded a 501(c)(3) called OAR Foundation with the mission to provide a community for OAR veterans, preserve the history of the evacuation, and explore the operation’s “moral injury” on those who were there.
“Moral injury is a guilt or shame-based ailment,” Laude explained. “It can be co-occuring with post-traumatic stress, but I think the biggest difference is the guilt. I think many times, the guilt is what can more quickly lead someone toward suicide. We are slowly researching all of these things and recently brought on a psychologist into the organization to help us build up that research.”
As the vast majority of OAR veterans leave the Corps or move on to different commands, they try to decipher how that horror-packed two weeks will fit into the rest of their lives. Even for veterans with combat deployments prior to August 2021, HKIA held experiences unlike anything they had ever seen before. OAR Foundation hopes to play a key role in finding answers and accountability, while providing a forum for veterans to share their experience. As they forge ahead, those stories will shape the legacy of the Marines and Navy corpsmen whose lives were changed at HKIA and preserve the memories of the 13 servicemembers killed in action.
The lessons learned from this tragedy remain in infancy, even two years later. Most will only be revealed as more truth comes to light. When something horrific occurs, the duality of man emerges. The evacuation of HKIA brought out the worst that humanity has to offer. It also brought out the best. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how completely evil holds the day, there will always be someone willing to act for good, even in the face of chaos and utter exhaustion. Someone will always be willing to hold the line. At HKIA, Marines held.
Author’s note: Our tribute to the fallen servicemembers from HKIA is on page 72 of this month’s issue. For the Marines who served at HKIA, thank you for allowing me to share a glimpse into your experience. Each of you has a story worth telling. I encourage you to do so. It would be impossible to capture everything that happened there in one article. I hope my efforts have done you justice. For more information on OAR Foundation, visit www.operationalliesrefugefoundation.org. For additional photos and information about HKIA and the attack at Abbey Gate, see the expanded version of this story at www.mca-marines.org/magazines/leatherneck/.
Most Marines know that the fabric of our Corps is woven from throughout the nation. Marines join from every state and even from foreign countries, often with the goal of becoming a citizen of the United States. But a Canadian citizen who enlists during the Vietnam War with no desire to renounce his Canadian citizenship and become an American? That’s pretty unusual, but even more rare is when that same Marine goes on to become a highly successful businessman and philanthropist. Veteran Marine, successful businessman, and generous philanthropist Terrance K. “Terry” Salman is such a rarity.
Salman recently sat down for an interview with Leatherneck to discuss his service and his focus on philanthropy after his highly successful business career in Canada. Decades after his time in the Corps ended, Salman remains a loyal Leatherneck reader and even referenced two of the magazine’s articles in his recently published book, “What We Give From Marine to Philanthropist: A Memoir.” The interview took place via Zoom which made it easy to see that Salman embodies the old adage, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” Behind his desk is a large portrait of a Marine waving the American flag, painted by famous Canadian artist, Attila Richard Lukas. It’s clear that Salman is proud to be a Marine.
Canadian by Birth
Growing up in a large family in Quebec, Canada, Terry Salman was a relatively mediocre high school student whose future wasn’t clearly defined. Meeting a Marine recruiter over the border in Platsburg, N.Y., Salman was intrigued listening to all the benefits of service, especially travel, but it was a photo behind the recruiter’s desk that actually sealed the deal. “I had a fondness for JFK [John F. Kennedy], the commander in chief, and behind the recruiter’s desk was a portrait of the commander in chief.” At that time, his only knowledge of the Corps came from reading the Leon Uris classic, “Battle Cry.” Nevertheless, Salman decided the Marine Corps was for him. The recruiter expedited the required green card, and Salman was off to recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
Salman said “The DIs were very suspicious,” about his citizenship but added that it was only at Parris Island that being a Canadian was ever an issue during his time in the Corps. “I was happy in the Marine Corps. They didn’t really care if I was Canadian. It never came up after boot camp.” And like many Marines, Salman considers his best day in the Corps to be the day he graduated from recruit training at MCRD Parris Island.
Salman was assigned to the infantry during his six years in the Marine Corps and he quickly advanced through the ranks to the grade of sergeant. He served in Vietnam with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines as a section leader. “I was an 0341, 81 mm mortars,” said Salman. “What mortars have to do to support a platoon is incredibly important and takes a lot of planning and training.” He later took the lessons he learned from his time as a grunt and applied them to both his business endeavors and philanthropy. “Keep your focus on the ultimate objective which the Marine Corps focuses on, whether a combat mission or training a unit or how to train individuals to become a better Marine. Teamwork is incredibly important.”
When asked about the impact his service in Vietnam had on him, Salman responded positively. “It gave me a much different view. I’ve tried to take a worldly view about what is right and what is wrong, that different countries have different ways of looking at things. Having lived in the United States, everybody called it Camelot, it was a high standard. Things are different today, not only in the United States but elsewhere. There’s more political uncertainty than there was in my time.”
Entering the Business World
After leaving the Marine Corps, Salman returned to Canada and began working in the mining industry with a focus on finance. He achieved significant success at Nesbitt Thompson, a Canadian stock brokerage firm, and later at his own financial advisory firm, Salman Partners, where he was president and chief executive officer and where he raised funding for hundreds of companies in the mining and exploration fields. As the current president of Salman Capital and chairman of New Pacific Metals Corporation, Salman’s business successes have been numerous, and he credits his time in the Corps for setting him on the path to success.
“It was really the foundation of my life because the Marines taught me everything was possible. You just have to be patient. You have to work at it. The guiding principles of following procedures, having a good plan, your own plan, your unit’s plan, those are things that I learned from and used.” Salman referenced other lessons from the Corps including discipline, accountability and responsibility. “The many courses I attended in the Marine Corps helped me become sergeant in less than four years. They were incredibly helpful; they taught me a lot about what it takes to persevere, to look for higher goals.”
His philanthropic efforts grew in parallel to his business successes. According to Salman, philanthropy went hand in hand with his service as a Marine. “Philanthropy is not much different. Some of the core values that Marines learn apply in philanthropy. Marines taught me to help people, and philanthropy is all about helping mankind in a broad sense. I don’t see much difference.”
Veterans’ causes are just one of the many efforts upon which Salman has focused over the years. The Canadian organization, Veterans Transition Network, is especially close to his heart. The organization provides post-traumatic stress treatment to Canadian veterans and American veterans who live in Canada. Encountering one recipient of the organization’s programs and support, Salman was reminded again of the impact of helping others. The veteran told him, “They saved my life. I wouldn’t have seen my daughter graduate without them.” Salman strongly believes that for those who have been blessed with health or a good job, the challenge is to do more. “Veterans are the most marginalized in society in many ways. They suffer from so many things, including a large portion of homelessness, which is a big North American and global crisis to be honest. There’s much more to do.”
Of the many ways Salman has given back, his support of those with AIDS at a time when many shunned them was perhaps most impactful. “When you saw people who had marks on their face and losing weight, I was at the forefront of a hospital that embraced them which was so enriching to see. In those days they were the most marginalized/ostracized people, everyone saw it as a gay man’s disease but of course, it wasn’t. It was uplifting to sit in an environment where you could do something.” According to Salman, his support of those suffering what was at the time an incurable disease is one of his greatest legacies, and again, his efforts to support that particular community also had some roots back to his time in the Corps.
“Philanthropy is about trying to overcome adversity; making the world a better place, more giving, more inclusive, and ironically, I learned that from the Marines—inclusion. We could be supportive in other ways. I learned not to turn my back on people who were different than me. That’s what enabled me to take the AIDS initiative, which was so important.”
Loyalty is vastly important to Salman and is a theme throughout “What We Give.” “That came from my time in the Marine Corps. The Marines are big on loyalty. That’s what Semper Fi is all about. I never forgot that.” He continued, “One of the frustrations I have, not so much in philanthropy but in business, is getting the same kind of loyalty. Six years in the Marine Corps today would seem like an eternity to a young person. That’s a big thing with me.”
Like all good Marines, Salman has spent most of his life serving as an example to others. In addition to his philanthropic efforts, which include raising millions for everything from public libraries to hospitals, Salman wrote, “What We Give From Marine To Philanthropist: A Memoir,” in the hopes that his story would serve as inspiration. “The world is full of tragic stories and suffering people. So, for those of us who have the opportunity to give back, it just seems like the moral thing to do.”
He continues to look for opportunities to help others even today. “Giving back gets easier … it has such rewarding characteristics. Small things go a long way. I’m always looking for new ways to help move my philanthropy forward.” And when asked to describe his legacy, Salman again focused on serving others. “I would hope that they would think about not just about how much money I made, helping to create a better world in the charities and philanthropies that I engaged with. There’s more things to do. That’s what I’m looking forward to for the rest of my life; trying to do more, like the Marines do with less.”
Author’s note: More information on “What We Give From Marine to Philanthropist: A Memoir” and how it can be purchased can be found at www.whatwegivebook.com.
Author’s bio: Col Mary H. Reinwald, USMC (Ret) served 27 years on active duty and retired in 2014. She was the editor of Leatherneck and the vice president for strategic communication for the Marine Corps Association until earlier this year.
“My predecessor told me … ‘we don’t have lightsabers and hover tanks in the basement here, but it’s right down the road.’ ”
—Colonel Frederick Lance Lewis Jr., USMC, Assistant Vice Chief of Naval Research (AVCNR)
The United States military is the most technologically sophisticated fighting force the world has ever seen. Its dominance comes not from its immense size, but from its ability to rapidly project force on a global scale, powered by an ever-improving arsenal of hardware and software the likes of which only a science-fiction writer could predict. The Marine Corps has always organized itself to be as flexible as possible, and with Force Design 2030 refocusing the Corps around that principle, it will need to modernize more rapidly than ever before. Force Design 2030 asserts that it is imperative to “transform the Marine Corps into a more agile, efficient, and technologically advanced force to meet the challenges of the future.” Proudly leading that charge are the devoted men and women of the Office of Naval Research (ONR).
The Office of Naval Research traces its roots back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time of rapid change. For the denizens of Europe and North America, industrialization changed every facet of life; how we ate, how we worked, how we traveled, and especially, how we fought. The First World War proved to the world’s generals and admirals that a military even a few years out of date would be hopelessly outmatched on the modern battlefield, a fact of which American leaders were especially aware. Exactly 100 years ago this month, on July 2, 1923, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) was established to lead technological research and development programs throughout the Department of the Navy, including the Marine Corps. Throughout the interwar period and during World War II, NRL completed early pioneering work on many of the technologies we take for granted today: remotely piloted aircraft, sonar, and radar, just to name a few.
Coming out of World War II, American geopolitical strategists recognized that the U.S. had the opportunity to become the dominant military power in the world but could only do so by maintaining a technological edge over foreign adversaries. To that end, on Aug. 1, 1946, President Truman signed Public Law 588, establishing the Office of Naval Research to “plan, foster and encourage scientific research in recognition of its paramount importance as related to the maintenance of future naval power, and the preservation of national security.” Since then, ONR has overseen all U.S. naval science and technology programs, coordinating NRL’s work with that of other laboratories across the country and around the world.
For new technologies to meet warfighters’ needs, the people developing those technologies need perspective on how their work actually makes a difference to the end user. To that end, ONR draws its manpower from the operational military. Its senior leadership consists of actual warfighters who have already served on air, land, and sea; several have combat experience. Even many of the civilian employees are veterans now in their second careers. Because the Marine Corps is an integral part of the Department of the Navy, the positions of vice chief of naval research (VCNR) and assistant vice chief of naval research (AVCNR) are always staffed by Marines so they can advocate for the Corps’ future needs.
Pushing the Marine Corps into the future is a huge responsibility. As the VCNR, Brigadier General Kyle B. Ellison also serves as the Commanding General of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL), the Futures Directorate, and the Wargaming Center. “He’s a very, very busy individual,” confirms Colonel Frederick Lance Lewis Jr., the AVCNR. “What he has put out is a campaign plan for, ‘How are we going to get from where we are now to Force Design 2030?’ My job as the assistant vice chief of naval research is to ensure that Marine Corps’ equities are being met in science and technology development.” Col Lewis came to ONR last summer after three years as the commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.
As a pilot with more than 3,900 total flying hours, including more than 400 in combat, Lewis is intimately familiar with the importance of the work ONR does. Throughout his 27-year career, he has observed and directly benefited from a slew of new technologies developed at least in part by the organization he now helps lead.
“It’s interesting because you don’t think about it in real time. I’m an F-18 pilot by trade. When I started flying the F-18 in ’99, there was no GPS in the aircraft! There were no GPS weapons. Laser-guided weapons were … something that was talked about in hushed tones. Targeting pods were in their infancy,” Lewis said. “And now go to today … what I’ve seen is total immersion in GPS. GPS weapons and laser-guided weapons, that’s the norm. If you’re dropping a ‘dumb’ bomb, that’s the rare, exciting exception.”
Beyond precision-guided munitions, Lewis has seen new technologies pervade every aspect of warfighting. “Helmet-mounted queueing system, Link 16, improvements in radar, targeting pods—holy cow, we could talk forever about advances in targeting pods—downlink video, SATCOM, all kinds of things that have been incorporated now into aircraft,” Lewis said. “On the ground side, never did I think when I was doing my first FAC [forward air controller] tour, when I was on my ground tour in Iraq, ’04-’05, that you would be able to livestream video down to a battalion COP [common operational picture], and now it’s normal,” he added.
“Some of the up-armor capability, MRAP [Mine Resistance Ambush Protected vehicles], QuikClot, all of these things, you just think about … holy smokes, none of that stuff was thought of, invented, and it all started in a place like this,” Lewis said. “For me, I’ve seen that arc of technology and just how valuable technology is, and what does it take to deliver it to the fleet, having been on the user end of it.”
Each of ONR’s five departments, called Codes, directly manages programs within a specific area; the Warfighter Performance department, officially designated Code 34, does a great deal of work that directly benefits Marines on the ground. From its headquarters in downtown Arlington, Va., ONR coordinates each department’s work at various research centers throughout the U.S. and abroad, such as NRL, MCWL, and the many Naval Surface Warfare Centers (NSWCs). Secure networks allow scientists and engineers there to collaborate in real time with their counterparts in other services of the U.S. military, allied militaries, research universities, and the private sector. Reporting to Col Lewis are five Marine officers, one in each Code, who leverage their scientific education and Marine Corps experience to direct the program officers’ research.
To equip Sailors and Marines for the battlefield of the future, ONR must first be able to predict that future. As the expeditionary portfolio director, veteran Marine Billy J. Short Jr. tries to do just that. In the absence of a crystal ball, he and his associates use a three-part timescale to analyze the future based on the levels of maturity of various new technologies. “The close, deep, and deeper fight is what we call it,” he says. “I need to make sure that we have a spectrum of technologies that the Marine Corps can adopt over that timeline.” In this context, “close” refers to programs which should conclude within the next three to five years, yielding results that will likely benefit many of the Marines reading this article today.
One example of a technology nearing maturity is a device known as the Portable Fluid Analyzer Plus (PFA+), which promises to significantly streamline the workflow for any Marine whose MOS involves vehicle maintenance. An important but underappreciated part of keeping vehicles running is checking lubricants, fuels, and hydraulic fluid for contaminants or debris that could indicate or even directly cause a vehicle to break down at the worst possible moment.
Currently, fluid testing requires the Marine to package a sample and ship it to an offsite laboratory that may be hundreds of miles away, then wait days for the lab to send back a detailed analysis. As its name suggests, PFA+ effectively packages all the capability of a fully equipped scientific laboratory into a man-portable Pelican case and completely automates the testing process. With minimal training, anyone can carry the device to wherever it is needed and quickly test a fluid sample to determine its exact composition and determine what impurities it has. Once it arrives in the fleet within the next few years, PFA+ will reduce the processing time from several days to less than an hour, allowing maintenance technicians to keep more vehicles running with less work.
During field trials at Camp Lejeune, a PFA+ prototype proved its worth when a vehicle unexpectedly broke down in the field. Instead of canceling the trial and calling for motor transportation Marines to recover the vehicle, the quick-thinking Marines in the field used the PFA+ unit to test its fuel. Determining that moisture in the fuel system had caused the breakdown, the Marines were able to quickly restore it to working order and continue the scheduled testing, saving untold manhours of work.
Several of ONR’s current projects involve the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to create more opportunities for training. Augmented reality systems combine computer-generated imagery with the wearer’s view of the real world, like an advanced heads-up display. Dr. Peter Squire, Ph.D., the program officer for human performance, training, and education works with VR and AR to improve how warfighters use those technologies. He has degrees in computer science and psychology, a rare combination which makes him uniquely suited to not just develop technology, but understand how people use it. “I don’t do things directly in developing weapons; what I try to do is better understand how we will employ those,” he said.
“I try to help create training capabilities that will support that ‘anytime, anywhere’ training as part of their home station duties,” Squire continued. One of those new training systems is the JTAC Virtual Trainer (JVT), developed in collaboration with the private sector. As part of their MOS, joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) and FACs require complicated training that can be difficult for a unit to arrange. The time and space requirements to set up a practice range, not to mention the fuel and munitions costs the Marine Corps incurs to dispatch aircraft to simulate close air support, are immense.
“For example, it is costly to do close air support training because you have to pay for pilots, the gasoline, the munitions, so if you can do that and still have the same level of proficiency using a simulated system to complement some live-fire activities, I think there’s a huge ability of going after that type of approach,” Squire said.
ONR’s JVT leverages virtual reality technology to turn any space into a virtual training environment, complete with virtual aircraft, so that Marines can practice crucial combat skills more often than is currently possible. JVT’s advantages in cost and convenience promise to make it a valuable addition to the Marine Corps’ toolbox.
“Some of what we do is early basic research that can take 10-30 years to fully develop,” said Short. Much of the fundamental technologies ONR is presently investigating at universities will not be mature and ready for deployment until many of today’s Marines have already left the military. It will be a very different Marine Corps and a new generation of Marines who field this new hardware. This foundational research can lead to breakthroughs that provide us a disproportionate advantage over other evolutionary developments.
Short, who earned graduate degrees in chemistry and physics, retired from the Marine Corps having served as a combat engineer officer. His combination of a strong science background and experience as a Marine gives him a unique perspective into both the new technologies reaching maturity and how warfighters can use those technologies in their work. In discussing the way new technologies are promulgated throughout the fleet, he divides them into two categories based on what drives them: pull and push.
“Tech pull,” as Short calls it, is what happens when a program works to develop some capability requested by the fleet. These programs arise directly from the needs of warfighters, as identified from the results of exercises and wargames. “We see that when we take what we currently have and mix it up with the adversary’s capabilities, we’ve got a big gap here. That gap can then get translated into a technology need that then becomes a ‘pull.’ ”
“Tech push,” on the other hand, happens when ONR’s program managers identify a new or emerging technology which could provide a benefit Sailors and Marines, then develop that technology into a usable form. ONR has an entire portfolio called the Innovative Naval Prototype Portfolio consisting of such programs. “For that portfolio, we don’t need a requirement, we don’t need resources, all we have are scientists and informed discussions with our warfighters to say, ‘hey, we think this technology is … a moonshot and can have game-changing aspects, and regardless of what feedback you’re giving us right now, we’re saying that from a technical level, if this was fully and successfully developed, this is probably going to change the way you fight.’ ” In other words, with tech pushes, the scientists and engineers try to provide new hardware before the men and women in the fleet even know they need it.
Everyone at the Office of Naval Research is deeply invested in the work they do and how it affects the men and women in the fleet. When any individual Sailor or Marine identifies a problem that could be solved with new technology, ONR wants to know as soon as possible so their scientists and engineers can develop that technology. To that end, the ONR TechSolutions program allows Navy and Marine Corps servicemembers to submit their ideas for new technologies that could solve existing problems and enhance warfighter capabilities. ONR communicates with the applicant to fully understand the problem, and if the solution can be developed in a timely and cost-effective manner, devotes resources to the project.
“Our job here is to maintain our technological edge over any adversary out there, and … if anybody’s foolish enough to take a swing at the Navy and the Marine Corps, that that’s an unfair fight in our advantage,” said Lewis. “That idea is permeated from the top, from General Ellison, down to every single program officer that I’ve ever come across.”
The researchers’ high level of motivation is palpable. “There are some folks who are really, really hungry to make sure that it is an unfair fight out there, and it is truly, truly exceptional to be in their presence and to feel their energy,” said Lewis. “I mean, you can just feel it coming off of them, you know? You get bogged down with budget and all that stuff, and then you go talk to the folks and they just could not be more excited about this new thing they came up with that’s going to make it unfair for our adversaries,” he added.
Any team succeeds or fails based on the contributions of each of its members, and ONR exemplifies this principle perfectly. From the command leadership to the program officers, the whole organization is pervaded by a strong culture of enthusiasm for the work they do, an understanding of its value, and a sense of responsibility toward the Sailors and Marines they support.
Author’s bio: Sam Lichtman is a freelance writer who specializes in small arms technology and military history. He has a weekly segment on Gun Owners Radio. He is a licensed pilot who lives in Virginia.
This year marks several significant milestones in the legacy of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band. July 11 marks the band’s 225th anniversary, and although the organization looks nothing like it did in 1798, its enduring fame and popularity has changed little as the band remains the oldest professional band in the nation.
Less than three years after President John Adams signed an act of Congress establishing the United States Marine Band, the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, claimed the band as his own following his inauguration, bestowing upon the organization their prized nickname and their musical duties have evolved over the years, extending far beyond the White House and Washington, D.C.
It proved to be a struggle to find and enlist the original 32 drummers and fifers in 1798. The band procured financing only through the Commandant’s “suggestion” that the officers in his young Corps of Marines donate roughly 50 percent of a month’s paycheck. Today, the organization operates with stunning sophistication and organic support, consisting of well over 100 musicians and full-time staff.
The band has performed through some of the most significant events in American history. On Independence Day in 1848, the band celebrated the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. Members stood alongside President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as he delivered his immortal Gettysburg Address. A century later, in 1963, the world witnessed “The President’s Own” on TV as they led the funeral procession for President John F. Kennedy. On Sept. 11, 2002, the band helped Americans honor our fallen at Ground Zero on the one-year anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
The organization’s high profile and highly public role requires the very best musicians America can offer. As early as 1840, the band officially “separated” from the rest of the Corps. The Marine Corps Manual of that year made the first known distinction between enlistees in the band and enlistees in any other occupational specialty, and 40 years later, in October of 1880, The President’s Own entered its most transformative period under the leadership of legendary director John Philip Sousa. Only 25 years old, Sousa had already been performing with the band for over a decade. He initiated their first national concert tour, taking the band outside of Washington, D.C., to share their music around the nation. Sousa introduced many of his own marches during this time, many of which endure today with their popularity. He also inspired the first phonograph recordings of the band during his tenure. In 12 years as director of The President’s Own, Sousa modernized and expanded the band’s repertoire of musicians and events in an unprecedented fashion.
Sousa’s legacy and enduring vision for the organization enabled many other “firsts” to come in the years following his departure. The year 1922 saw the music of the band enter homes across the nation as the Marine Band radio program was broadcast for the first time, building upon Sousa’s efforts to have their music recorded. His vision for the national concert tour expanded further in 1985 as the band performed its first international concert in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Since this first overseas tour, the band has also performed in countries such as Switzerland, Czech Republic, Singapore, Japan, and most notably, in 1990, the Marine Band became the only American military band to tour the former Soviet Union before it dissolved into independent states.
March of this year marked another significant milestone in the band’s history as it celebrated 50 years since the first woman enlisted in The President’s Own. In 1943, then-director Captain William F. Santlemann supervised the formation of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (MCWR) Band, a separate entity trained by and operated in conjunction with The President’s Own. Santlemann cast a wide net for his auditions, drawing everything from professional players at Juilliard to exceptionally talented female Marines serving in the motor pool. Though it lasted only two years during World War II, the MCWR Band toured the U.S., played live on The President’s Own national radio broadcast, and helped the nation celebrate victory in the war and welcome our troops home.
With the MCWR Band paving her way, a 21-year-old French horn player named Ruth Johnson won her audition and became the first female to enlist in the Marine Band in March 1973. Women’s roles expanded greatly in the following years with more than 40 women now serving in various playing or administrative capacities.
Major Michelle A. Rakers made history with the band, becoming both the first female assistant director and the first female commissioned officer to serve in The President’s Own. Rakers enlisted as a trumpeter/cornetist in 1998 and received her commission and appointment as assistant director in 2004. Rakers progressed in rank over her career, eventually achieving her position as the band’s executive officer. She held the position for four years prior to retiring after 20 years of service.
“The MCWR Band was an important part of our history,” said Maj Rakers. “Had it not been for them, the paradigm could have taken longer to shift and I may not have had the opportunity to be in [my] position … We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.”
Like Maj Rakers, the majority of The President’s Own spend their entire career with the band. New positions arise only when current members decide to leave because the unit is restricted in its number of authorized positions. Playing in the organization is a coveted role as vacancies are infrequent and limited. Larger sections with numerous Marines playing the same instrument might see one audition per year for new members. Smaller sections, however, can go a decade or more without vacancies. As a result, auditioning for The President’s Own becomes a nerve-wracking event for the participants.
“Auditions are run in a similar fashion to a civilian orchestra,” said Colonel Jason K. Fettig, the Marine Band’s current director. “The standard expected is exceptionally high due to our high profile and public mission. We invite all to come to our auditions at their own expense. We can have up to 150 individuals competing for a single position. Most of our members hold advanced degrees in music, and although that is not a requirement, we have found that this level of education and experience is needed to be competitive.”
Staff Sergeant Alexander Garde earned his spot as one of the band’s newest percussionists in March 2022. He completed his bachelor’s of music in 2020 from the New England Conservatory in Boston and also studied at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston.
“Prior to my position with the band, I took other auditions for professional orchestras and military bands around the country,” Garde said. “The talent and quality of musicianship in this band rivals any musical group out there. Once I was offered a position, I further understood that I was not just joining a world-class performing group, but a historical institution. All of the musicians in the band today, and those who came before me, have shaped American musical tradition throughout the history of our nation. Being able to observe those practices evolving in real-time is incredible.”
Despite his short tenure with the band, Garde dived headfirst into the concert schedule. In July 2022, just four months after enlisting, he traveled to Europe with the band for a concert tour through the Czech Republic, Austria and the Netherlands.
“Seeing what our performances meant to the audiences in Europe was unbelievable and showed me just how global the reach of The President’s Own really is,” Garde recalled.
“Performing John Philip Sousa’s ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ at a palace in Prague to a sold-out, standing, cheering crowd will forever be a highlight of my career, and, truthfully, of my life.”
Garde plays alongside many Marines with more than 20 years of experience. Master Gunnery Sergeant Alan Prather, the band’s lone guitarist, has 24 years of service, and MGySgt Susan Rider, a trumpet and cornet player, recently celebrated an anniversary with The President’s Own, reaching 26 years with the band. In September of this year, MGySgt Christian Ferrari will achieve an impressive milestone in his career as another trumpet and cornet player, seeing a full 30 years of service with the Marine Band.
New and experienced members alike carry out their role as Marines with the utmost dedication to the band’s mission, providing music at the request of the President. This strictly musical function enables band members to enter service with a rank commensurate to pay structures of professional civilian orchestras and supersedes the requirement of recruit training for all others who seek to earn the eagle, globe and anchor.
Other bands around the Marine Corps exist to meet the musical requirements of their individual commands. These Marine musicians complete boot camp and Marine Combat Training prior to attending the Naval School of Music in Virginia Beach, Va. This category of musician includes “The Commandant’s Own” Drum and Bugle Corps. Though seemingly similar in dress, mission, and high profile, The Commandant’s Own is completely separate from The President’s Own in function, organization, and chain of command.
To carry out their mission, Marine Band members live anything but the “9 to 5” life. They must be prepared to perform on short notice and on any occasion. Groups of varying sizes perform over 200 times per year at the White House, nearly 20 times per month. Almost every day, members take part in funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Evening Parades at Marine Barracks, Washington, fill every Friday night through the summer months. Various other ceremonies keep the band busy in Washington, D.C., but they still manage to execute an impressive travel schedule. Members play in schools across the nation, mentoring high school students, and performing numerous other public concerts. Most notably, each October, around 65 Marines depart on the national concert tour, continuing the tradition Sousa originated in 1891.
Executing a performance schedule of this magnitude would seem to leave no time for practicing their craft, but Marine Band musicians create the time.
“Practicing is the constant that always remains, no matter what our schedule is,” said SSgt Garde. “As musicians, we think of playing our instruments like eating food: a necessity that we need to do, but also something that we love.”
Many members play multiple instruments in order to meet the musical requirements of the pieces they perform. In the end, the Marine Band does whatever is needed to produce a song in the way its composer intended.
“We’ve had basically the same instrumentation in the band for over 100 years, but several instruments make an occasional appearance that aren’t in our normal set up,” said GySgt Charles Paul, the Marine Band’s chief librarian and historian. “For example, the alto flute, bass flute, soprano saxophone, bass saxophone, flugelhorn, etc. The percussion section is where you’ll really see some interesting things like bowed vibraphones, water glasses, and whistles. Based on the music, you could see percussion instruments like a Turkish crescent, a typewriter, a donkey jawbone, a trash can, or rustling leaves. There was even a piece by John Corigliano that called for a shotgun blast.”
On a stage as visible as these Marines occupy, a superior level of preparation is required to overcome challenges when they arise. Inclement weather proves a constant worry for all outside performances. In September 2022, the band performed in a torrential downpour at the Pentagon on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Music sheets disintegrated in the rain and several instruments stopped working. Somehow, the music carried on.
“Even when the weather is fine, we often encounter situations where the plan must be thrown out the window, and we improvise on the spot,” said Col Fettig. “When you have a unit with the capabilities and experience at the level of The President’s Own, as a leader, it gives me the confidence that we can rise to meet any challenge, no matter how unexpected.”
For over two centuries, The United States Marine Band has overcome the unexpected brought about by the ebb and flow of national events. No matter the occasion, no matter the size of the ensemble, no matter the genre of song, The President’s Own continually demonstrates their ability to bear their cherished nickname and preserve America’s music.
“I could not be more proud to acknowledge that it is the Marines that have the oldest professional band in the country, and that this organization has been in continuous existence serving our Presidents and our Marine Corps for 225 years,” reflected Col Fettig. “I think that says something very important about the power of music and the arts to bring people, and bring nations, together. No country in the world does that better than the United States of America, and it is the honor of every member of ‘The President’s Own’ to continue to serve in that special way.”
From the Leatherneck Archives: Feb. 15, 1945, Pacific Edition
A shrieking Marine-piloted Corsair dived on its Marshall Island target. Its bombs released, smoke and dust shrouding the atoll. Suddenly from the smoking blackness below, tiny red balls of fire streaked toward the sky from a well-hidden gun.
The Corsair shuddered as it dropped out of position. A hundred yards from the barely discernible beach the careening fuselage was swallowed by the treacherous surf.
Slowly an oil slick mixed with the green dye of a marker and the yellow of a life raft. The pilot’s comrades circled overhead, radioed his position, and as gas ran low, turned homeward.
The man in the life raft was alone. His one salvation was the well-organized sea rescue service composed of the Navy’s flying boat, the PBY Catalina, known fondly as the “Dumbo,” and the swift destroyers that ply these waters.
In the past six months, 21 men of the 4th Marine Air Wing, commanded by Brigadier General Louis E. Woods, flying with squadrons neutralizing the Japanese-held islands of Mille, Jaluit, Wotje and Maloelap, had been rescued. Twenty of their comrades, shot down in similar actions, were lost. In other words, more than 50 percent of the men shot down in combat have been rescued, most of them to fly again!
Dumbos landed in perilously rough seas, cracking wingtips while effecting rescues, and, like giant crippled birds, the huge planes have taxied miles across the water.
American destroyers steamed defiantly into the range of Japanese shore batteries to pick up crash survivors, at times engaging in running battles with the enemy to accomplish their mission.
The vast reaches of open sea that these pilots crossed to bomb Japanese atolls do not seem impressive on a map, but they are incredibly long distances for single-engine planes.
After leaving their own base, the open sea was their only haven of safety if shot down since the only nearby islands were enemy held.
Once shot down, there was fear in their hearts. Fear of failure to be sighted. Fear of slight injuries becoming serious and the even greater fear of being discovered by the enemy. A man without fear is a fool.
They paddled with all the fury that fear inspires. They gave thanks to the heavy, tossing sea, threatening to engulf them, yet offering protective cover from the enemy. In the next breath they would curse it because it made them equally invisible to rescuers.
There was nothing to do now but continue to paddle in the direction of home, and wait.
The length of time pilots spent in the raft is not a matter fate. It may have been a few hours, a day, a week, all depending on the weather and visibility, but in 21 cases, their vigil was rewarded by hearing the drone of a plane, or the sight of the creamy wake of a destroyer.
Once aboard the rescue craft the men were cared for, given clean, dry clothing and fed. At the same time, a laconic radio message, worded thusly, was sent out: “Pilot rescued by aircraft (or ship). Returning to base.”
Despite being shot down and rescued, most of these men again took up the aerial cudgel against the Japanese in the Marshalls. Such was the case of Captain George Franck, former All-American halfback at the University of Minnesota.
His head injured in a crash landing, Captain Franck floated in his life raft for two and one-half hours. He was so close to enemy-held Wotje, that he “could count every coconut tree on the island.”
He was picked up by a motor whaleboat from a Navy destroyer that slugged it out with Japanese coastal guns. The destroyer moved in after a Navy PBY, which landed to affect the rescue, was split in two by a 50-foot swell and its crew of six was sent scampering to a life raft. Overhead, Captain Franck’s comrades, who had raced back to their base to refuel and re-arm, joined the fray. They strafed the enemy guns while Franck and the PBY crew were picked up.
Describing his rescue, Captain Franck said, “It was the best piece of teamwork I have ever seen.”
It is not a usual sight to see an Army B-25 pilot affectionately kiss the hull of a battered, weather-beaten Navy Catalina.
First Lieutenant M.B. Watts of Richmond, Calif., did just that to the PBY which brought him and his crewmembers back to Tarawa one day in June 1944.
Shot down in a bombing run, Lieutenant Watts and his crew were picked up at sea by a patrol bomber piloted by Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Olaf F. Holm, of La Jolla, Calif.
LTJG Holm landed the giant amphibian between two swells and popped 50 rivets in the hull.
By popping rivets, LTJG Holm meant that there were that many holes in the hull where rivets should have been. In addition, several supports were bent as he taxied toward the men on the raft and the PBY started “leaking like a sieve.”
“Two of the Army men had broken legs and a third was badly cut up,” Holm said. “We had a hard time moving them to our ship, but finally managed it by using part of the catwalk for a stretcher.”
“The Army men kept saying, ‘Thank God we’re safe,’ but we weren’t so optimistic about the outlook. My crew kept plugging up the holes with pencils, pieces of wood, and even their fingers. By the time we were ready to take off, we had a foot of water in the plane.”
With so heavy a load aboard and the water in the hull, Lieutenant Holm decided on a downwind takeoff, and recalling his surfboard riding days, rode the crests of three swells until the heavily laden Navy craft was airborne. Tarawa was reached without further incident.
During the rescue of Marine Second Lieutenant Theodore Wyatt, of Chicago, Ill., another triple play was performed. Lieutenant Wyatt, a 4th Marine Air Wing Corsair pilot, was shot down less than 2 miles off one of the Japanese-held atolls he was strafing.
After hitting the water, he managed to get out of the cockpit and into his raft. Members of his flight sighted him and remained overhead until the Dumbo appeared. Also nearby was a destroyer, but as it neared Lieutenant Wyatt’s raft, Japanese coastal batteries opened up. The Navy PBY landed, but was badly damaged by heavy seas, and the nine-man crew was forced to board two rafts and join 2ndLt Wyatt in the water. The shore batteries switched their fire to the plane and rafts, but a motor launch from the destroyer picked up the men without mishap, as Douglas dive bombers provided a curtain of protective fire.
A split second rescue saved the life of Marine Captain Edwin A. Tucker, of Lancaster, Calif.
Capt Tucker, a member of another 4th MAW Corsair Squadron, was shot down into the lagoon of an enemy base in the Marshalls. Capt Tucker was unable to inflate his life raft, and despite his frantic efforts, watched it sink out of sight. He abandoned his plane and was kept afloat by his Mae West. Twenty-five minutes later he was picked up by the ever-present Navy Catalina.
The rescue was accomplished without drawing fire from Japanese gun emplacements fringing the lagoon because of continued strafing by Capt Tucker’s squadron mates, who kept the enemy gunners well pinned down.
Another thrilling rescue amid a hail of bullets was the one of Marine Captain Judson H. Bell, of Bel Air, Md., a member of one of the first units of the 4th MAW to use the Corsair as a fighter bomber. Capt Bell was forced into the water after his plane was set ablaze by enemy antiaircraft fire.
For two hours Captain Bell floated in the water, supported by his Mae West, his life raft having gone down with the plane. A destroyer, dispatched to the scene, was kept away by heavy shore battery fire. The destroyer lowered a motor whaleboat, which made its way, amid a shower of bullets to the captain and carried him to safety.
His 13th strike proved unlucky for Marine First Lieutenant Van A. Dempsey. Flying cover for a dive bomber, Lieutenant Dempsey’s airplane was hit by antiaircraft fire. Unable to fly the stricken ship home, he pancaked into the ocean. He too, was unable to launch his life raft and had to rely on his Mae West. After 30 minutes of paddling in the water, he was picked up by a Navy flying boat.
These are only a scant few of the rescues of flyers downed at sea. All of them are victories against the ocean and the enemy. Experienced pilots and gunners were saved and went on with their mission of neutralizing the Japanese-held Marshall Islands.
In late September 1968, Bob Skeels stepped off a plane at Quang Tri Combat Base. The aircraft delivered three of Bob’s friends to Vietnam alongside him. The four men shared much in common. All were young, newly minted second lieutenants. All had recently graduated from training as 1802 tank officers. For Bob’s part, a surge of personal patriotism drove him to the Corps after college despite growing disillusion with the war at home. Vietnam was the war of his generation, and he wanted to play a part, just as his parents had in World War II. He pursued a career as a tanker. He preferred the idea of a heavily armored carriage with massive firepower carrying him to battle in relative safety.
The four lieutenants hauled their gear off the plane and entered a building to check in. Their crisp new uniforms and beaming golden bars stood out among the faded, drab background of the base. A gruff and weathered lieutenant colonel summoned them into his office. They lined up and snapped to attention. The officer got straight to the point.
“Sorry to tell you this, gents, but a curveball is coming your way. We are short on infantry platoon commanders, so for your first 90 days in country, you will be assigned to a grunt battalion. Welcome to the infantry.”
Bob swallowed hard stifling a wave of emotion. Scuttlebutt had reached the states that 1968 was the war’s worst year yet to be a new Marine infantry officer. Grunt lieutenants held a low chance of survival. Bob gathered his strength to remain upright and breathed a hardy, “Yes, Sir.”
“We couldn’t make a noise because we could tell the guy was a hard ass and he’d bust you right there on the spot,” Bob recalled today. “I was in fear, but your eyes can’t show anything, your words can’t show anything. What are you supposed to do? You just obey your orders.”
The four tankers left the lieutenant colonel’s office and parted ways. Bob received his orders to “Echo” Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines and his spirits faded further when he learned the officer who had informed them of the temporary assignment would later be his battalion commander. The man seemed even less pleased with the situation than the tankers had been.
Bob collected the weapons, clothing, and 782 gear issued to a new grunt bound for the bush. He loaded onto a chopper heading west for Vandegrift Combat Base. The sun disappeared behind distant mountain tops as the helicopter set down. Someone directed Bob to a tent on the perimeter to spend the night. Another chopper would deliver him to his unit at Khe Sanh the following morning. Several NCOs invited Bob to join their card game and dealt him in. In the twilight, ridges and valleys extended for miles, nestled beneath a perfectly painted sky. Could a place like this really be a war zone?
Bob stripped down to his skivvies as they played. The oppressive heat seemed the only blemish on the otherwise beautiful country. An artillery round suddenly exploded 150 meters away. Bob scanned the table, gauging the reactions of other Marines. A second round hit 100 meters away. Everyone ran outside. A third round came 75 meters away. Someone screamed, “Get in the goddamn trench! We’re on the gun target line!”
Six Marines dove headlong into a water-filled hole next to the tent. Wearing nothing but his skivvies and hard-rimmed glasses, Bob plunged in after them. He sank to the bottom and struggled not to drown as the tangled mass of bodies all took cover. Someone knocked Bob’s glasses off and they disappeared into the muck.
When the incoming fire finally stopped, the Marines clawed their way out of the trench. The tent which housed the card game hung in shreds. Naked, soaked, and blind without his glasses, Bob never felt so vulnerable.
“I was so embarrassed. I learned to never go to bed without being fully dressed. From that point on, I always went to bed with my boots on and rifle on my chest. I found out later the incoming rounds were misfires from friendly 105 mm howitzers nearby. That was my first night in country. What a hell of a night.”
In the morning, Bob boarded another helicopter and flew farther west. The chopper descended into thick fog, completely socking in the jungle beneath him. The helicopter crew chief shouted back as Bob peered out the door.
“OK, Lieutenant, you’re here!”
Bob stared, completely befuddled. A white sheet hung in the air, veiling what seemed the entire world outside of the chopper. “What?”
“You’re here, Hill 881 North.”
“Are we on the ground?”
“No, but we’re only about 10 feet off. You’ll be alright, go ahead and jump.”
Bob cursed the Marine, the fog, and the hill somewhere below as he slid into his pack. With over 125 pounds of gear on his body, he jumped. The helicopter noise muffled any cracking sounds from his body as he collided with the ground. He lay on his back catching his breath as the helicopter departed. A driving rain began, pelting his face as he stared toward the sky. Men snickered in the distance. Bob hurt too much to care. A Marine finally approached.
“You Lieutenant Skeels?”
“Yeah,” Bob muttered. “My back hurts like hell.”
“Jesus, sir. We gotta get you out of that dead cockroach position.” He helped Bob roll over and get on his feet. “You’re 3rd Platoon Commander. They’re all waiting for you over there on the east side of the hill.”
Bob located his Marines, collected under several ponchos tied together. The platoon sergeant stood as Bob entered their shelter. “Welcome, Lieutenant.”
“Thanks. It’s good to finally be here. I’ve had a couple rough days.” The Marines smirked and shot glances around the group.
“Well, you’re about to have tougher days. What do you want to do now?”
Bob gathered the platoon sergeant, squad leaders, and anyone who was on their second tour. The Marines arrived as Bob decided what to say. One of the grunts beat him to the punch.
“Lieutenant Skeels, before you get started, can I ask a question?” Bob braced for impact.
“How the hell did we wind up with a green tanker for a damn infantry officer?”
“You guys gotta give me a break!” Bob replied. “Sure, I am green, but looking at your brand new uniforms, some of you guys are just as new as I am. I’m here to learn from you guys that have been here the longest, and we’re all going to be in this together.”
A silence followed Bob’s retort as the Marines traded looks and considered their new leader. Finally, the Marine who offered the challenge let on a smile.
“OK, Lieutenant. We’ll let you have a chance. But no orders for crazy frontal charges!”
Echo Company departed Khe Sanh shortly after Bob arrived and headed north toward the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Bob’s platoon separated from the rest of Echo Co and spent the next two months patrolling the jungle. The unit operated autonomously, rarely seeing other Marines in the bush. The shortage of true infantry officers became evident. Bob’s company cycled through multiple commanding officers while he patrolled the Vietnamese mountains.
Bob learned quickly the hardships of a grunt in war. He and his Marines engaged daily in battle with the jungle. Rats three times the size of those stateside moved in from every corner of the country to follow Marines and feast on garbage left behind. Bob cinched his poncho high around his face every night, lest he find a rat perched on his chin in the morning looking for crumbs. Often, this happened anyway. Just like the rats, he constantly scrounged for food. Inclement weather often prohibited resupply and the isolated Marines survived many days on one C-ration.
Heat and humidity left the Marines constantly wet. Everyone developed jungle rot. Even as his knuckles seeped and split open, Bob called in medevacs for Marines with cases far worse than his own. Leeches dominated the environment, ready to suck out any amount of life the Marines had left. Bob developed his morning routine which included a full-body sweep and removal of leeches with a flame or salt, sometimes up to 30 leeches at a time.
“It was like an extended camping trip with occasional periods of sheer fright,” reflected Patrick “Mac” McWilliams, one of the grunts in Bob’s platoon. “I tell people most of my time in Vietnam was spent battling the elements. We just lived out there, digging a hole every night.”
“Everything we did, we did for our brother in the hole with us,” remembered Bruce Brinke, another Marine serving under Bob. “We didn’t have any grand ulterior motives, we just put one foot in front of the other and tried not to think of the whole 13 months. When you’re a lance corporal, a ground pounder, you just do what the squad leader tells you, and he just does what the platoon commander tells him. You don’t have much of a grand view.”
One of Bob’s squad leaders, Cpl Alvin “Twink” Winchell, struggled finding words to describe his time in the jungle as he recounted the memories recently.
“My daughter is a nurse with experience helping veterans,” Winchell said. “She helped me explain how I survived the jungle. She said, ‘Soldiers are trained to go into survival mode mentally and physically. Some did it well, some caved. The jungle was a site like none other could imagine. Those of you that perfected survival mode attempted to come home. Most of you who are still alive are still in constant survival mode.’ This is how I am to this day.”
When his platoon was not patrolling, Bob received orders to help establish new fire bases on remote jungle hill tops. At the future sites of Fire Support Bases (FSB) Alpine and Argonne, the Marines dug holes and set up security as helicopters lifted in heavy equipment to remove the trees. Bob endured the drain of sleep deprivation on these long nights while checking his positions.
One night, as Bob watched through a Starlight scope, he picked up something unknown moving around the perimeter. He investigated in the morning and discovered fresh tiger tracks. From then on, Bob performed his nightly rounds with a pistol in one hand and a 12-gauge shotgun in the other. He had always worried about getting shot in the dark by a probing enemy soldier or even a trigger-happy Marine. Now, the thought of a 400-pound cat ripping him to shreds boosted his anxiety to a whole new level.
In November, the platoon humped all day to the top of another hill where the next FSB would become reality. Soon to be known as FSB Russell, the hilltop proved critical to supporting grunt operations in the surrounding area.
Nights at Russell brought sightings of a species other than tigers. Listening posts (LPs) set 150 meters out from the perimeter radioed in constantly reporting enemy movement. Starlight scopes revealed human forms moving slowly through the jungle, probing the new defenses and mapping out the perimeter. Bob requested permission to engage the targets but was denied so as to not give away the defensive positions. He walked the lines and out to the LPs each night on high alert, shotgun and pistol in hand. With all the enemy sightings, sooner or later, contact felt imminent.
Before dawn on Dec. 7, 1968, word came down of an upcoming operation. For the first time since Bob arrived with 2/4, the entire battalion would take part in an assault. Several other units would also join in the massive cordon and search. The objective was a well-known and well-fought over terrain feature immediately south of the DMZ known as Mutter’s Ridge. Somehow, out of six participating battalions and their subordinate units, Bob’s platoon drew the task of pushing across Mutter’s Ridge on point for the entire operation.
“You’re gonna get your platoon a lot of ribbons on this one,” the battalion sergeant major told him. “That place is a hell hole. This happened in 1966. It happened in 1967. Now, it’s our turn. We gotta go in there and clean them out.”
Bob tried not to dwell on the stupidity of an annual operation where Marines died to simply drive the NVA back across the DMZ. Less than eight hours after receiving the initial frag order, the Marines loaded into choppers and flew to their insertion LZs.
The main objective, designated “Objective Bravo,” occupied the highest hill of Mutter’s Ridge. The rushed timeline planned for Bob’s platoon to secure Objective Bravo the same day the entire operation was conceived. The sun sank lower and lower into the western sky as 3rd platoon moved across Mutter’s Ridge. When Objective Bravo finally came into view, Bob saw not one, but three distinct hill tops rising into the twilight. Storming a single enemy-occupied hill would be difficult. Tackling three such hills seemed nearly impossible—in the dark, surely suicidal. Bob called his platoon sergeant over.
“How the hell are we supposed to take that? It’s got three tops! It would be crazy to try to take that in the dark.”
The staff sergeant stared blankly back. “It’s your call, Lieutenant.”
Bob considered Objective Bravo in silence. Finally, he called up his radioman and raised the company commander. “Echo Six, this is Echo Three. Request permission to set up at our present location for the night and attack the objective in the morning, over.”
An unfamiliar voice replied. “Echo Three, the CO’s not gonna like that. He’s gonna be pissed you’re screwing up his operation.”
Bob struggled to place the voice. Could it really be another new company commander? Whoever it was, Bob didn’t care. “Just ask him.”
An excruciating pause followed. Finally, the voice returned with orders.
“Echo Three, patrol over to the base of Objective Bravo, then return and hold your position for the night. Resume the advance tomorrow morning at 0630. Out.”
Bob set down the radio and breathed a sigh of relief. He passed the word to his squads. They found nothing on their final sweep of the day to the base of Objective Bravo, then returned and dug in. Bob passed the night walking the lines.
Dawn broke over the jungle. 3rd platoon roused early and geared up for the coming assault. Shortly before the appointed hour, Bob’s radio came to life.
“Echo Three, Echo Three, this is Six. Operational change. Foxtrot Company has been tasked with securing Objective Bravo. You will proceed east along the ridge and act as a blocking force for their assault.”
Bob set the radio down. The Marines around him waited for his word. He wrestled with the sudden change in orders. Why now? He knew trying to understand was futile. Their job as point for the operation was now someone else’s job, their fate someone else’s fate. Third platoon’s job now was to simply execute the new orders.
They marched out down a ridge line. The three peaks of Objective Bravo jutted out of the sky to the north with the rest of Mutter’s Ridge extending west out of view. It took most of the day to reach the end of the ridge where it dropped off and opened into a valley leading north to the base of Mutter’s Ridge. In the late afternoon, the point man suddenly called a halt. Bob moved forward. Ten pots of boiling rice sat abandoned on the jungle floor, still simmering. Bamboo tables and chairs surrounded them. Marines crouched on high alert.
“It was a pretty big outpost we encountered,” Bob recalled. “You see something like that, and your sphincter muscle starts to fire. You know you’re going to have contact very soon.”
Bob called over Cpl Alvin Winchell’s squad. He gave Winchell five map checkpoints in the vicinity to investigate. The six-man squad set out down a hill towards the first checkpoint on the valley floor. The rest of 3rd platoon started digging in for the night.
Patrick McWilliams took point for Winchell’s squad. The 20-year-old lance corporal volunteered for the spot, even though he had never run point before and had not seen combat. They neared the first checkpoint in a thicket of bamboo and elephant grass. McWilliams crested an embankment running across the valley. The embankment revealed itself to be the edge of a trench line. In the trench directly below McWilliams, a NVA soldier sat eating. Before McWilliams could shoot, the enemy soldier bolted and fired wildly back towards him.
McWilliams considered jumping into the trench after him, then a bullet tore through the hand guard of his rifle, grazing his finger. Machine-gun fire peppered the embankment, creating a dust cloud behind McWilliams as he sprinted back toward the rest of his squad.
He reappeared through the elephant grass as a roar of automatic fire rose above the embankment. Before Winchell could learn what McWilliams had seen, AK-47 fire ripped apart the foliage around him. A sudden sting in his leg dropped Winchell to the ground. He grabbed the radio and found Bob already waiting on the other end.
“What’s going on down there?!”
“We walked into something, it’s a hornet’s nest!”
Winchell switched frequencies to talk with the company’s 60 mm mortars. He directed their fire into the trench and surrounding area. The NVA maintained such a rate of fire that he could not even raise his head to watch the rounds impact. He estimated their range from the sound of the explosions and swept rounds across the valley.
The machine-gunner in Winchell’s squad opened up with his M60. Another Marine shouted, “They’re flanking us!” Meanwhile, the NVA raked the Marines’ position as they advanced. Winchell called the mortars in closer. Grenades suddenly landed between the Marines. Winchell grabbed his own grenades and threw them back. The back-and-forth went on until a grenade finally found its mark. Winchell’s radioman screamed in pain as the explosion blew apart his knee. Winchell moved the radioman farther back, then called the mortars even closer.
“We called it, ‘hugging the belt,’ where they’d try to come in so close that you were afraid to call in mortars on your own men,” Winchell remembered. “Well, I kept bringing them in.”
When the battle opened less than 200 meters down the hill, Bob ordered his remaining two squads to saddle up. The new company commander radioed again demanding updates.
“We’ve made contact with the enemy down in the valley,” Bob told him.
“Well, get someone down there to sweep,” the voice replied.
“Already did. That’s who is getting hit.”
“Hold on, I’m coming up there.”
As the rest of 3rd platoon prepared to move, a second lieutenant appeared. Bob determined this must be his new company commander. Automatic fire raked the ridge line as Bob explained their current situation. Leaves and limbs rained down from the branches above their heads.
“Get your ass down there and get those guys!” The lieutenant ordered.
Bob bit his tongue. No point in getting into it with a senior lieutenant right now.
“On my way.”
The platoon’s remaining two squads advanced off the ridge toward the gunfight. They discovered three enemy bunkers built into a hill on their right flank as they worked their way down toward their fellow Marines. Bob realized they could not risk leaving them occupied by the enemy to chew his platoon apart as they moved toward his trapped squad. He adjusted course for the bunkers. Enemy fire slowed their progress as the platoon strung out through the jungle. The point squad finally reached the bunkers and found them unoccupied. Bob sent a runner back through the line to get a count and let everyone know they would resume course back towards Winchell. The runner returned with unexpected news.
“Lieutenant Skeels, we’ve got two missing.”
“What? What do you mean, missing?”
“They went missing some time during on our movement. No one back there saw them.”
Bob fought to keep his bearing as his heart sank to the pit of his stomach. His radioman approached. Fixed wing aircraft held station overhead, ready to pummel the valley floor. Bob still hadn’t located Winchell’s squad. Now, with two Marines missing somewhere in the area, he couldn’t risk jets dropping their bombs. He called the aircraft off and formed up his remaining Marines to move out toward Winchell and search for the missing men.
Bob witnessed at least 20 uniformed enemy soldiers 400 meters away, safely perched on a hilltop near Objective Bravo and firing into the valley. They obviously felt impervious to the battle raging as they added their fire into it.
More Marines fell wounded as the platoon advanced. The man next to Bob was shot in the chest. Bob rolled him over and removed his shirt, revealing a large exit wound. He moved the Marine back uphill toward the abandoned bunkers where a casualty collection point formed.
A small observation plane soared in over at treetop level. The pilot came up on 3rd platoon’s radio and advised he spotted a Marine lying motionless on the jungle floor, shot dead center in the chest. Bob called for volunteers.
“I need two volunteers to come down there with me to look for our MIA.”
One of the remaining squad leaders chimed in. “Lieutenant, you can’t go, you’re the lieutenant!” Without hesitation, two other Marines spoke up. “We’ll go, Lieutenant.”
LCpl John Higgins and PFC Paul Dains stepped forward. Bob didn’t know what to do. Two Marines were missing, at least one probably dead. One squad was trapped in a fight for their lives. Aircraft and artillery waited his word to obliterate the valley. Multiple casualties required evacuation. Darkness threatened to consume Mutter’s Ridge at any minute. The senior company commander demanded answers.
“All right. Look, just get down there. Take a look and get back here. You’ve got five minutes. Just take a look and get back here!”
Back in the valley, Winchell continued calling mortars for what seemed like an eternity as the rest of 3rd platoon tried to reach him. He inched the explosions closer and closer. Mortars rained down merely 20 meters away. Shrapnel cut down trees and vegetation around the Marines. A piece of searing metal tore into Winchell’s knee. When other Marines also suffered friendly shrapnel wounds, Winchell ceased the fire. The NVA retreated from the area. The mortar barrage saved them.
He rolled over and rose to his good knee. Suddenly, through the trees, he saw LCpl Higgins walking alone 30 meters away in the direction where the NVA fire had originated and where they had retreated. Winchell caught his attention and frantically pointed toward the enemy positions. Higgins acknowledged him and proceeded on, disappearing back into the jungle.
Back with the rest of 3rd platoon, Bob checked his watch. Five minutes came and went. Five more minutes passed. As Bob debated what to do, movement down the hill caught his eye. A Marine staggered through the trees. Not Higgins or Dains, but one of the Marines who went missing earlier. He appeared badly wounded, purple in color, and missing his helmet and rifle. The Marine stumbled and fell. Bob rushed down the embankment and picked him up. He struggled back to the perimeter with the Marine over his shoulders. He ordered his radioman to call for a medevac as he lay the Marine with the other casualties.
Dusk settled in and it started to rain. The wounded had to get out now. The only chopper available or willing to come was an Army Chinook. Bob praised and thanked the pilot as he helped load nine Marines on board the helicopter.
More good news arrived shortly after the chopper departed. Winchell’s squad made it safely back up the ridge and linked up with the other elements of Echo Company. All six Marines were wounded, but all six made it back alive. Winchell and his radioman were evacuated due to their wounds. The word helped Bob remain positive. Higgins and Dains had to be out there somewhere, waiting out the darkness, waiting out the NVA.
The sun rose quietly over Mutter’s Ridge on Dec. 9. Bob moved out with his diminished platoon at first light. Echo’s 2nd platoon joined them in searching for their missing Marines. The enemy had completely abandoned the valley, retreating to their stronghold on Objective Bravo. Bob’s platoon located the Marine spotted from the air the day prior. PFC Charles Hall Jr., was no longer missing, but was now the platoon’s first confirmed KIA.
Nearby Hall lay the lifeless body of PFC Dains, similarly cut down by a sniper’s bullet. They proceeded on toward the trench where Winchell’s squad made first contact. A later count revealed 52 enemy bunkers constructed beyond the trench line. Lying next to one of these bunkers, the Marines found the body of LCpl Higgins.
Echo Company spent the rest of the operation blocking the eastern flank of Mutter’s Ridge as Foxtrot Company assaulted Objective Bravo. On Dec. 11, 1stLt Steven Broderick led the assault across the three-topped hill, his platoon in the position Bob’s was intended for before the operational change. Broderick died in the battle, moving among his squads and directing them under fire. He posthumously received the Silver Star.
Twelve other Marines were killed and 31 wounded while taking the objective, later renamed “Foxtrot Ridge.” Over 170 enemy bunkers were counted there, stuffed with ammo, weapons, and supplies. In all, less than 60 dead NVA were left on Mutter’s Ridge to be counted. Commanders deemed the operation a sweeping success and a prime fighting example of the Corps’ mighty air/ground team.
Bob remained with 3rd platoon through the end of December. He wrote up LCpl Higgins for a posthumous Silver Star. The citation recognized Higgins’ bravery under fire throughout the day of Dec. 8, his initiative in volunteering to seek out the missing Marines, and courage for continuing on alone toward Winchell’s squad, where he died trying to help them.
Bob’s 90 days as a grunt ended as the new year rolled around. He left 2/4 for Bravo Co, 3rd Tank Battalion on Jan. 3, 1969.
Having adopted the mold of an infantry platoon commander, Bob struggled at first remembering how to lead a platoon of five tanks. Near the end of February, Bob and his tanks stood guard over a bridge along Route 1 near the DMZ. One evening, radio traffic trickled in about a fire base near Mutter’s Ridge that had been overrun. Bob’s ears perked up when he heard the name FSB Russell. Having spent several weeks carving Russell out of the jungle, Bob could never forget the place. His platoon occupied Russell, alongside numerous others, when Bob left them. On the night of Feb. 25, over 200 NVA sappers broke through the perimeter and overran the outpost. In the ensuing terror, 26 Marines were killed and 77 wounded.
Bob begged his new CO to let him go to Russell and check on his old platoon but was refused. Winchell, McWilliams, Brinke and all the others would have been there. Bob did not know if any of them survived.
Bob supported infantry operations along the DMZ for the remainder of his tour. He worked with numerous grunt battalions moving in and out of the bush. Every time he went out, Bob loaded his tank with extra C-rations and passed them out to the grunts. He knew they were always hungry. When grunts were wounded in battle, Bob sometimes evacuated them, riding on the fenders of his tank. He knew helicopter evacuation was not always possible. Every time he went out for two or three days, he thought of the infantry enduring weeks at a time in the jungle.
Bob, like so many other Vietnam veterans, spent the next 40 years trying to forget the war. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bob found a patriotic spirit that inspired him to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He formed new bonds with veterans who shared experiences similar to his own. They inspired strength to dig deeper into his past. Bob visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He found John Higgins, Paul Dains, and Charles Hall on panel 37W of the wall. He searched each line for other names he’d recognize. He bowed his head in thankfulness, discovering that no more of the Marines he had ordered evacuated on Dec. 8 had died of their wounds.
Bob located a website published by the LZ Russell Association. Here, he finally connected once again with Winchell, McWilliams, Brinke, and other Marines from 2/4 who survived Mutter’s Ridge and the nightmare at LZ Russell. Winchell received the Bronze Star with “V” for heroism on the night Russell was overrun. Brinke was wounded and received the Purple Heart. Bob learned that 2ndLt William Hunt, the lieutenant who replaced him in 3rd platoon, was killed there.
The Marines asked Bob to fill them in on the operation at Mutter’s Ridge and what had happened leading up to their making first contact of the operation. This proved yet another plight of the grunts, to obey orders without question, while not always understanding what they were doing, where they were going, and why they were there. Bob did his best to explain the broader picture and took the opportunity to tell them what they had meant to him all his life. “I came away from those 90 days with the belief that the grunts deserve everything,” Bob reflected today. “They deserve all the support that anyone else can give them. Dec. 8, ’68 was a terrible day in my tour. My worst day. I only spent 90 days as a grunt. I don’t know how they endured that jungle for 13 months. It was truly the honor of my lifetime to serve alongside those Marines.
Revealing the Lasting Impact of Corporal Jason Dunham
In 2003, film producer and director David Kniess caught a red-eye flight from California, bound for the East Coast. A young Marine took the seat next to him. They struck up a conversation, and Kniess soon abandoned any thought of sleeping on the plane.
“He was just one of those people that you meet, and you immediately know there’s something special about them,” Kniess recalled in a recent interview. “Very courteous, charismatic; one of those people you meet, and you don’t want the conversation to end.”
The two stayed up talking through the night as the flight crossed the country. Kniess learned the young man’s name was Jason Dunham. He would soon be deploying to combat with “Kilo” Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. When the plane landed and they caught different connecting flights, Kniess shook Dunham’s hand and told him to take care of himself.
Several months later, in May 2004, Kniess received a call from a friend.
“Did you see The Wall Street Journal today?”
“Remember that kid you told me about? Do you know what he did? Go get the paper.”
Kniess picked up a copy and saw Dunham’s portrait on the front page. He read on to learn how Dunham had been gravely wounded in Iraq and died eight days later after smothering a grenade with his Kevlar helmet to save the lives of two of his Marines.
Kniess wrote a short story about his experience meeting Dunham on the flight and published it online. The story made its way to Jason’s parents, Deb and Dan Dunham, in Scio, N.Y. Before long, Kniess found a voicemail on his phone from Dunham’s mother. He initially ignored the message. What would he say to her?
When she called again, he realized he could not continue putting off the conversation. Kniess returned the Dunhams’ call, speaking with them about the story he wrote and reminiscing about their son. A friendship developed quickly, and within a month, Kniess was on his way to their home in western New York.
The relationship with the Dunham family expanded in the following months. In September 2004, Kniess met Dunham’s fellow Marines as they returned from their deployment in Iraq. He listened to their stories and learned the full details of what Dunham had done and became determined to create a documentary about Dunham and the Marines who served with him.
As the years passed, he maintained a close relationship with the Dunham family and the Marines Dunham served alongside. One by one they left the Marine Corps, while Kniess waited for the right time to tell Dunham’s story.
Shortly before Kniess met Dunham’s family and began developing relationships with his Marines, he had worked on a separate documentary covering Vietnam veterans in the battle of Khe Sanh. One of the Marines being interviewed, a Bronze Star with “V” recipient named Bob Arotta, struggled as he recounted the friends he’d lost.
“He told me some very graphic stories from his time during the siege,” Kniess remembered. “He told me, ‘You know, the things that happened then affect me more now than on the day they happened.’ That message was fresh in my mind as these guys started coming home from the war. I kept thinking, when is that day going to come for them? They were still in the Marine Corps. They still had the brotherhood. But I knew that day would come when the full effect of the war would hit them, and I worried about all of them. Sure enough, over the years I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. A lot of these guys are doing great now, but some of them aren’t with us anymore. It got to a point where they became old enough and a lot of this reflection had already happened.”
In 2020, 16 years after Dunham’s death, Kniess felt that enough time had passed, and it was time to tell the story. Not just the story of Dunham’s service and heroism, but also how his actions formed the foundation of life-altering events for so many others who served with him. Filming and production of the documentary began despite significant delays brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. Travel and gatherings were restricted, but the team found a way to make it work as they traveled around the nation interviewing everyone necessary to tell the story.
LCpl Bill Hampton (left) and PFC Kelly Miller (right) fought alongside Dunham in Iraq and were wounded in the grenade blast that Dunham smothered with his Kevlar helmet. These Marines, along with numerous others from Kilo, 3/7, share the gripping details of what Dunham did on Apr. 14, 2004, and how his sacrifice changed their lives. (Photos courtesy of Three Branches Productions, LLC)
The film opens with Dunham’s family background. Dan and Deb Dunham are not his biological parents, and the film details how Dan came to adopt him. From a young age, Dunham learned what responsibility and a strong work ethic looked like as he watched over his younger brother and worked with his father on a dairy farm. His parents encouraged Dunham’s enlistment in the Marines. They understood, even before he graduated high school, Dunham needed a challenge to thrive; not a contest against others, but to continually challenge himself.
“We get a lot of credit for what he did,” Deb Dunham states in the film. “We don’t deserve that. We sent them [the Marine Corps] a young man that had a lot of good values. He went to the Marine Corps and the seeds that we prayed we had planted and would [grow] well, they blossomed, and the Marines polished what we gave them. Whenever people would say, ‘Are you a Marine?’ Jason would flash that grin and say, ‘You bet your sweet ass I am.’ He was proud of it. He was a Devil Dog, and that was what he wanted to be and do.”
The film proceeds into Dunham’s service in the Corps and eventual deployment to Iraq with Kilo, 3/7. One lesser-known fact emerges from the film; Dunham extended his enlistment so he could deploy to Iraq with his Marines.
The documentary covers the details of Dunham’s heroism and the events leading up to his final act of smothering a grenade with his Kevlar helmet. The two Marines next to him that day, Private First Class Kelly Miller and Lance Corporal Bill Hampton, describe what happened and reflect on Dunham’s his actions, as he traded his life for theirs. Other Marines who watched Dunham’s patrol leave the wire that day reveal the aftermath of the loss and how the details of his actions came to light. Stunning images of Dunham’s helmet, ripped to shreds, play alongside Marines’ descriptions of how they tried to process the day.
Much of the later portions of the film demonstrate precisely how Dunham’s actions continue to impact a growing number of people. Many of the Marines interviewed have battled guilt and post-traumatic stress. Dan Dunham describes his own bout with guilt following his decision to take his son off life support eight days after he was wounded.
Another perspective offered by the documentary comes from the spouse of a Marine who served with Dunham in Iraq. Becky Dean, the ex-wife of Marine veteran Mark Dean, participated in the film and described her former husband’s significant battle with PTSD in the years following his deployment in the hope of helping to demonstrate the tragic effects of war on the families back home.
“A lot of people don’t realize that PTSD is transferred to the kids and spouse,” said Kniess. “Especially the spouses. They are front and center. They get the brunt of it. Having Becky’s story included is something I think a lot of people out there will relate to.”
Perhaps the most powerful part of the story centers on a Kilo 3/7 reunion organized for the film. In September 2021, 3/7 Marines from across the nation gathered in the Dunhams’ driveway in New York before marching to the local cemetery where Dunham is buried. The candid remarks captured for the film on that occasion are both heartbreaking and inspiring, revealing the true extent to which Jason Dunham impacted the people who had the privilege of knowing him.
The production crew endured numerous hardships and setbacks filming during the pandemic but despite these challenges, Kniess reflected that the most difficult part of making the documentary was conducting the interviews. Month after month, interview after interview, Kniess and his team relived Dunham’s story with Kilo 3/7 veterans around the nation. Each time felt like opening an old wound. He knew it would be difficult for the Marines to relive that day. Kniess did not fully expect the emotional toll it would take on him. He saw it in the faces of his team as well. Tears flowed freely on multiple occasions, and heavy-hearted interviews ended with the team hugging the interviewee one by one and thanking them for sharing their story.
Healing emerged through the pain, however. The process of reliving and celebrating Dunham’s story held enormous therapeutic value for some. Jason Sanders, one of the Marines with Dunham on his final patrol in Iraq, offers a profoundly insightful view during his interview in the film.
“It’s kind of hard to give up your stories to someone who has never been involved in anything like that,” Sanders says. “It’s real hard to, because you’re sitting there wondering, I don’t think they’re really comprehending what the hell I’m saying, you know? And you can’t expect anybody else to know the feelings that you felt that day, because it’s not normal. You kind of have to let your guard down and let people help you.”
The difficulty of the interviews also played a role in naming the film. One of the cameramen working on the production team spent time as a combat photographer in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Syria in 2018. The interviews with Dunham’s Marines brought back gruesome memories of his time as a combat photographer and drove him to tears.
“You need to call this thing ‘The Gift,’” he told Kniess one day after an interview concluded. “What Jason did was a gift. You’ve got children being born, families being started, and people who were able to go on and do things with their lives because of this gift.” As Kniess expanded the interviews, more and more people referred to “the gift” that Dunham had given them. By the time filming was complete, there could be no other title.
Dunham is recognized today through many tributes. Most notably, the U.S. Navy named a guided missile destroyer in his honor, USS Jason Dunham (DDG-109). Even so, in the years since he became the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since Vietnam, Dunham’s story has been largely overshadowed by later recipients perhaps because a surprising number of Medal of Honor recipients from the global war on terrorism survived to receive their medals.
“The Gift” documentary succeeds in rejuvenating Dunham’s story in a moving and relevant way. The Marines interviewed unanimously echo a resounding fact; Dunham’s sacrifice affects them more now than it did the day it happened. “There are two things I want people to get from this documentary,” Kniess said. “The general public, I want them to gain a better understanding of what it’s like for Marines and Soldiers to go to war, what they experience, and how it affects them. Everyone in uniform these days has had the experience of someone coming up to them and saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I don’t think a lot of people who do that really understand what those words mean. I don’t blame them or fault them for that. I think it’s great they take the time to say it, but I hope people will watch this film so the next time they say it, they will better understand what those words mean.
“As for the veteran community, I know there are still guys out there struggling. There’s going to be someone out there watching this, and they’re going to learn about some of the guys we interviewed, the drug addiction, all the things they went through, and how they turned their lives around. I’m hoping that veterans like that will watch this and think, ‘Well, if they did it, why can’t I?’”
“The Gift” was produced by Three Branches Productions, LLC, a veteran-owned production company. The company was founded by three veterans: Kniess, who served in the Navy; Vincent Vargas, an Army Ranger; and Anthony Taylor, a Marine. The fourth member of the team, a civilian, is executive producer Chase Peel. “The Gift” won Best Documentary at the Utah Film Festival in January, has been invited to the GI Film Festival in San Diego, Calif., taking place this month. Kniess received the Santini Patriot Spirit Award at the Beaufort International Film Festival in February for his role as director, and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s Major Norman Hatch Award for best documentary feature. Three Branches produced two versions of the story, a two-hour feature length film, and a five-part series. “The Gift” will release on streaming media in spring 2023. Visit www.watchthegift.com for updated information about the release date.
Marines Walk from East Coast to West Coast To Raise Awareness, Money for MIA Recovery
Early in 2020, Sergeant Major Justin LeHew, USMC (Ret) had an idea. It was a big idea. For anyone who knows LeHew, that’s no surprise. He wanted to take a rather unique road trip with his close friend and fellow Marine, SgtMaj Coleman “Rocky” Kinzer, USMC (Ret). The plan was to take a trip across America. They would be cycling with some hiking mixed in. And along the way, they would visit tourist destinations to check some of the boxes that had been missed during their busy years on active duty. Slowly an idea began to take shape. Not only would they see America, but they planned to use the trip to raise awareness of Missing in Action (MIA) servicemembers and raise funds for History Flight, the nonprofit MIA recovery organization for which LeHew is the chief operations officer and Kinzer is the deputy operations officer.
Kinzer and LeHew started training for the journey, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to put their plans on hold—for two years. LeHew couldn’t let go of the idea, though, and in late spring 2022, he decided that it was now or never.
On June 6, 2022, LeHew and Kinzer finally took their first steps on a journey that took them from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. In an adventure that they dubbed, “The Long Road,” the two Marines walked from Boston, Mass., to Newport, Ore., along U.S. Route 20. It took more than six months for them to cover the 3,365 miles on foot, and they arrived in Oregwon on Dec. 17, 2022, where a crowd had gathered to cheer for LeHew, Kinzer and Ray Shinohara, a fellow Marine who joined his friends in Illinois.
Some of the specifics of the original plan changed—including the route and what “bucket list” items they would check off along the way—but perhaps the biggest change was the mode of transportation. They didn’t use bicycles; instead, they walked the entire coast to coast route.
U.S. Route 20 is the longest highway in the United States and goes through small towns and vast areas of farmland into the heart of America. Access to those small towns and farms is exactly why LeHew chose this route because one thing that didn’t change from his original vision is the two overarching themes that were guiding and motivating the Marines during their odyssey: raising funds for History Flight and raising awareness about the more than 80,000 servicemembers from throughout the nation still unaccounted for.
History Flight is a nonprofit MIA recovery organization dedicated to locating and recovering U.S. military personnel previously deemed unrecoverable. LeHew has been with the organization since his 2018 retirement from the Marine Corps. Kinzer joined the group after he retired in 2019, and Shinohara will soon begin work as a History Flight team lead on Betio Island where recovery of Marines who were killed in the Battle of Tarawa is ongoing. History Flight teams combine historical and archival information with technologies such as ground penetrating radar surveys, magnetometry and forensic archaeology to conduct searches. They currently have a 93 percent success rate in locating the remains they have searched for.
LeHew, a recipient of the Navy Cross for his actions with Task Force Tarawa on March 23, 2003, in An Nasiriyah, Iraq, chose to depart on the anniversary of D-Day for a few reasons. He didn’t want to leave on Memorial Day so as not to detract from the solemnity of the day. “On Memorial Day there should be an attention on the people of this nation who gave everything … it shouldn’t be the kickoff date to highlight somebody else’s thing,” he said. “I want to spend that day in silent remembrance … thinking about my buddies,” added LeHew, who is the National Commander of the Legion of Valor organization.
LeHew also had a more personal reason for choosing D-Day to begin walking. He thought it would be a good way to honor the memory of his father who served in the Army during World War II and participated in the D-Day landings. “On 6 June 1944, my father was a PFC in the 29th Infantry that came out of the front end of an LCVP [Landing Craft, Vehicle Personnel] … and he managed to cross Omaha Beach … and survive,” LeHew said, adding that his father and the others of his generation “came home [after the war] and built these roads, worked in these towns, and made the America of today for all of us that are sitting here today.”
Kinzer and LeHew and their families spent a few days in the Boston area before kicking off the journey. Bright and early, on June 6, the two Marines went aboard USS Constitution and fired the deck gun for morning colors before they took their first steps on what would become the trip of a lifetime. They traveled through Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and part of Illinois before rendezvousing with Shinohara, west of Chicago in Elgin, Ill., in August.
Shinohara had some catching up to do. In the early days of the hike, Kinzer and LeHew had been through the breaking-in phase and had already worked out the kinks. They were averaging 20 miles per day, and they had a rhythm. But there was no way Kinzer and LeHew were going to leave Shinohara behind. Gradually, he became acclimated and fell in lockstep with “Team Long Road.” Soon after, he took up the job of monitoring the group’s social media in the evening and documenting the journey with photos and video he took using a small drone.
“There [were] definitely tough moments, but I’m with a bunch of tough guys. We all supported each other and made sure that we were all moving forward and not backwards,” Shinohara said. “The first week that I was out there I had huge blisters the size of golf balls, my back was hurting, my hips were hurting—I wanted to quit. But I knew I started this, and you know as a Marine I can’t not finish it. That mentality that I got from being in the Marines and being with other Marines alongside me, it helped push me forward,” he added.
LeHew, Kinzer and Shinohara planned their route so they could go through small towns and talk to people. They wanted to reach as many people as possible to let them know about History Flight’s dedication to live up to America’s promise to men and women in uniform that if they should fall in service to the nation, they would not be left behind and they would not be forgotten.
Early in the journey when they were close to Attica, N.Y., a retired Marine drove by and offered to give them a ride to a hotel in Attica, which is several miles off the path of the highway, but not before sharing a cold beer with them on the side of the road in the late afternoon summer heat. Before dropping them off at a hotel, the fellow Marine took Kinzer and LeHew to his American Legion post in town where they talked about their cross-country trek with the members who were there. According to LeHew, after hearing the reason behind the walk, the Legionnaires passed a hat and collected $1,500 to donate to History Flight. The next morning, LeHew and Kinzer were given a ride from the town back to Route 20 so they could continue westward.
And that kind of encounter happened all across the country. “I wasn’t prepared for ‘Iowa nice,’ ” said Kinzer, adding that the people who live in the towns they walked through in Iowa really supported them in any way they could to include having kids come out of school to line the streets and cheer as the Marines walked by.
As the walkers covered miles, those small-town Americans came together to form an unofficial support system for the men. And it was all done using modern technology but in a very grass roots way, through a Facebook group LeHew set up called “The Long Road.” The group grew in numbers, slowly at first, but the momentum picked up and the group swelled to more than 14,000 followers. Nearly every day, people would post messages in the group, not just to the walkers, but to each other. Posters would provide relevant information about road conditions, weather and lodging for areas LeHew, Kinzer and Shinohara were approaching. The Facebook group members would also coordinate with each other to give assistance to the men along the way.
And as the Facebook group grew, those early followers would answer questions asked by new followers. They also excitedly shared photos and details about meeting the men when they passed through their part of the United States. The Facebook page took on a life of its own according to LeHew. “This isn’t like every platform you find on the internet; this is a good one. There’s no finger pointing, there’s no politics. It was a community bulletin board that worked the way community bulletin boards are supposed to work,” he said.
The cross-country trek wasn’t without its complications. Early on in the journey, LeHew was infected with anaplasmosis from a tick’s bite. He had to leave the road for 10 days while he recovered. This was before Shinohara joined the group, so Kinzer had to power on by himself, which he said was more of a challenge than he had anticipated, adding that he was glad to have some temporary company as he was passing through one town when a resident came out and walked a few miles with him. “One thing I didn’t expect to happen to me was I did get lonely out there on the road. Obviously going with somebody makes it better,” Kinzer said.
Over the miles, they faced danger from drivers they shared the highway with. LeHew was quick to point out, however, that truck drivers on Route 20 were some of their biggest allies. “American truckers were the best people across 12 states,” he said, explaining that truck drivers would alert each other to be on the lookout for the walkers, while passing the word about their mission. The average automobile was more of a concern for Team Long Road. “When you walk a highway there’s not a time that you can take your eyes off the road for 3,365 miles … [just in case] you have to dive over a guard rail because somebody is texting,” said LeHew. He explained that it was draining to do that all day, and that he hadn’t really thought about that aspect of the trip when he was planning it. “You had to really learn, even though it’s not land nav, and ‘all I’ve got to do is follow the road,’ so many different things are happening on this road that you are mentally exhausted at the end of every day,” he said, adding that the hyper vigilance was similar to being on patrol nearly every day for 6 1/2 months.
There were some light and funny moments on The Long Road. In September while they were walking by a cornfield in Iowa, a turkey accompanied them for 3 miles. In a video that LeHew posted in the Facebook group, the turkey can be seen trotting along with the hikers. “The Long Road is for everyone, friend and fowl,” quips LeHew in the video, which was viewed 63,000 times and garnered dozens of comments and reactions.
Shinohara said there were other funny animal encounters besides the turkey trot. On one stretch of road, he looked behind him to see two Great Pyrenees dogs running toward him at full speed. He prepared for what he was sure was going to be an attack, but the two large dogs only wanted to play and walked along with the trio for a while. Shinohara said they had to backtrack about a mile to return the dogs to their home out of concern that the exuberant animals might be hit by a car.
When they didn’t have animal companions to laugh at, Kinzer said that during those long days on the road they had some entertaining conversations with each other, and they kept each other laughing with funny stories.
They didn’t walk side by side all the time. Sometimes, they spread out along the road so they could watch each others’ backs. LeHew said he developed an appreciation for the alone time during those stretches. “Most people during, their day, they are moving so fast they don’t have the think space to be able to weigh …. what’s working, what’s not working,” he said. “It allows you to sit there when you don’t have the distractions and everything else to get a certain amount of clarity that isn’t afforded to you anywhere else so you are not making rash, emotional decisions,” he added.
Along the way they accomplished a few of the “bucket list” items that led to the idea of the trip. They walked through Yellowstone National Park and saw the geyser Old Faithful, and their stay in Chicago included taking in a White Sox baseball game with Kinzer delivering the ball to the pitcher’s mound so LeHew could throw out the first pitch. “It’s something I’ll never get to do in my life again,” Kinzer said. “They interviewed us on Sox radio … those are experiences some people never get in a lifetime, you know you can’t trade them for anything,” he added.
At night they slept in hotels or they camped. They ate in diners and small local restaurants and sometimes they cooked. LeHew noted that along the way, volunteer firefighters were incredibly accommodating, allowing the Marines to use the bathrooms, bunkrooms and kitchens in the fire stations. Perhaps their biggest game changer in terms of logistics happened in Moville, Iowa, when they welcomed a new member of The Long Road Team: a motorhome.
For the rest of the voyage, they took turns driving the 1985 Winnebago Chieftain that LeHew bought. It served as a forward operating base on wheels and provided them with the needed supplies when they traversed the more desolate stretches of the route. It also served as a source of shelter when no other accommodations were available.
All across the country, there were moments of absolute awe and wonder. “You’re standing in the middle of an American empty highway and you’re watching nature’s fireworks show go off at night and there’s no headlights that’s disrupting any of this … the whole sky looks like it’s on fire,” said LeHew. “But it looks like it’s on fire because as the sun’s going down and it’s uninterrupted by all of these other influences from headlights or anything else.” he added.
“Until you actually lay eyes on a high alpine lake that’s frozen over, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides … a picture doesn’t do it any justice. Words don’t do it any justice. It’s one of those things where you have to be there, you have to see it,” said Kinzer. He said he made it a point to appreciate the natural beauty of every region they walked through but there was one place in particular that mesmerized him. “Really the place I think that got me the most was the western side of the Cascades … getting into that rainforest area on the western side of them as you drop down into the coastal area that was otherworldly,” he said.
The journey came to a close on Dec. 17, 2022, in Newport, Ore. A large crowd of people lined the streets to greet the walkers as they reached their destination—the end of the highway.
“For the last mile, where everybody started coming in, it was amazing,” Shinohara said. “The craziest thing was seeing people we met along the way. We posted when we were going to get to Newport and there were people that we met along the way on Route 20 that came to see us and … it made it more special because … someone would say, ‘hey, remember me from Iowa?’ It was just an amazing feeling.”
While Kinzer, LeHew and Shinohara have completed their journey on The Long Road, the intent behind their epic journey is still a driving force in their everyday lives. “This affects the living, not just the dead,” LeHew said, referencing the families of those fallen men who were never recovered and the sadness they live with.
With that in mind, History Flight continues its work locating remains of America’s MIAs. Recovery operations on Betio, in the Philippines and in Europe are ongoing and are nearly back to pre-COVID-19 levels. And on this Memorial Day weekend, LeHew and his family will be doing what has become a tradition for them. They will be at Arlington National Cemetery visiting graves, including the grave of LeHew’s father, LeHew’s Marines who were killed in Iraq, and the servicemembers who were killed in World War II, but only recently were brought home through the work of History Flight.
Author’s note: To learn more about History Flight, read “Until They All Come Home” in the Leatherneck November 2020 issue. To donate, visit www.historyflight.com/donate.
On Saturday, Oct. 21, 1967, David Jensen was working at a caterer’s office in Hales Corners, Wis. As the 18-year-old prepared orders for the coming week, the office owner entered the room.
“Dave, you need to go home.”
His terseness caught David off guard. He appeared somber and was obviously not playing around.
“Well, no,” David replied. “I can finish up this order, at least.”
“No, Dave. You can’t linger. You need to go home, now.”
He gathered his things and returned to his parent’s house. The staff car from the local Marine Corps recruiter’s office sat in the driveway. A recruiter’s presence was not unusual. David had known them since he was 12, the first time he entered their office with his older brother, Alan. Alan was a Marine, and David was determined to become one too.
David walked through the front door. A major and first sergeant in dress blues sat in the living room with David’s parents. A Bible lay open on the coffee table. Tears poured down his mother’s cheeks. His father approached him.
“David,” he faltered. “Alan is dead. He was killed.”
David moved toward the recruiters. His gut reaction came out as anger.
“You got proof? Where’s his dog tags?”
The Marines sat him down and described what they knew. Alan was killed in Vietnam on a recon patrol a few days earlier. Due to the intensity of the firefight, Alan’s body had to be left behind. Marines were still working to recover him.
The recruiters left after David settled down. He sat with his family in a group hug. What now? Nothing would ever be the same. His big brother was gone.
A Western Union telegram arrived the following day, officially confirming the news. One of Alan’s Marine buddies traveled to the Jensen home from Detroit. He stayed with them as they waited for further news, helping craft letters to Alan’s unit in Vietnam, and telling the family about Alan’s first combat deployment, where they served together in 1965. Finally, nearly a week later, more news arrived. Marines had recovered Alan’s body. He was coming home.
Alan’s remains arrived in Milwaukee, Wis., on Nov. 7. When his father arrived at the funeral home, the director informed him the funeral would require a closed casket. His father asked to see the body, but the director refused. His father insisted and witnessed firsthand the horrors of the war, and how unkind the enemy could be to an American body.
On Veterans Day, a police motorcade brought Alan to General Mitchell Field in Milwaukee to be transported to Arlington National Cemetery. The family flew to Washington, D.C., and prepared for his interment the following week. David watched his brother descend into the earth among the seemingly infinite rows of identical headstones. How could this be real? He reflected on his brother and decided, now more than ever, he wanted to follow in Alan’s footsteps.
David and Alan were the two boys in their family of six. Alan was the oldest child. David arrived seven years later, with a sister between them, and another sister after him. From his earliest memories, David always considered Alan his role model.
“We grew up hunting, fishing, trapping,” David remembered. “One of his friends told me once on a camping trip that Alan had berated him, telling him he didn’t even have what it took to be a Boy Scout. Even back then, Alan was a gung-ho kid, kicking ass and taking names. He taught me how to shoot, he taught me about girls. He was a Marine!”
When Alan decided to enlist, David begged to sign his name on the papers alongside him. The age gap between them, however, meant David would have to wait. Alan shipped out in 1961, serving initially as a machine-gunner with “Golf” Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. He worked his way up the ranks and became a section leader. He deployed to Vietnam where he transitioned to 3rd Recon Battalion and began running patrols behind enemy lines.
David received Alan’s letters and waited for his brother to come home. Alan finally returned during the summer of 1965. He left active duty altogether when his contract ran out that August. David was elated. The brothers returned to their usual outdoor activities. Now 16 years old, David was thrilled to show his brother how much older he’d become and how much closer to beginning his own enlistment in the Corps. Alan encouraged the decision.
“I remember he told me if you were going to be a Boy Scout, you’d better be an Eagle Scout,” David said. “And if you’re going to join the military, you’d better be a Marine.”
Alan tried settling back into civilian life. He got a job and even purchased 16 acres in northern Wisconsin with one of his Marine buddies. Something was off, however. David recognized the change. Alan seemed angrier. Neither brother had ever been the holiest of kids, but now Alan’s fuse proved extra short. One day while driving down the road, the car in front of them stopped at an intersection. Alan’s temper exploded when the driver took too long to drive on. David watched in awe from the passenger seat as Alan exited their car in the middle of the road, walked up to the vehicle in front of them, and yanked the driver out onto the street to fight.
Finally, in early 1967, Alan decided he could not take the civilian life anymore. He told David and the rest of his family he had to go back in the Marines. He could not see a good future for himself without the Corps. Alan contacted another Marine he’d served with on his first tour, who was now a recruiter in Louisiana. The recruiter told Alan that he could get him back in, but he’d lose the rank he had when he was discharged. Without hesitation, Alan jumped in his car and drove south to sign the papers. As Alan headed off again, David’s father took him aside.
“I was pissed,” David remembered. “My brother had such a profound influence on me. My father told me, ‘This is what he has to do. A man has to do what a man has to do.’ I was disappointed, but I had to understand.”
Alan reenlisted in February, and by May was already back in Vietnam. Now with 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, Alan once again operated on clandestine patrols behind enemy lines. By the time of his death that October, Alan had achieved the rank of sergeant and was an assistant team leader in the company.
David carried on with his plan to follow in his brother’s footsteps. His parents held reservations about him enlisting and they worked with recruiters to guarantee David would not see combat. He enlisted in March 1968 and served with land and carrier-based maintenance squadrons servicing jet engines. He tried to go to Vietnam but was refused. The Corps decided one son was enough for the Jensen family. David left active duty after his initial contract ended, then returned to service later in the Marine Corps Reserve as a Huey maintenance technician. He exited the Marines altogether in 1977.
In 1982, David learned about the newly dedicated Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He had visited Alan’s grave at Arlington several times but now hoped to make the journey again and visit “The Wall.” For years, life’s obligations delayed the trip. Regrettably, David’s father passed away in 1985 before he had the opportunity to visit the memorial. Finally, in 1987, David flew to Washington with his mother and sister.
David entered The Wall’s pathway near the Lincoln Memorial. The Wall grew beside him as he searched for panel 28E. The sea of names blurred together. Others walked the path beside him. Some wept as they placed flowers at the base of a panel. Some stood in silence with hands raised over a name on the wall. As The Wall began to shrink once more, 28E came into view. David traced his finger down the left side counting lines. When he reached 26, Alan’s name surprised him, first in that line at the left of the panel. David paused with his fingers touching the name above his head. Below Alan’s name, David’s reflection filled the polished granite. Names continued to infinity left and right. Other passing visitors moved as a blur through the reflection. In that moment, David felt his brother again, just the two of them, there on The Wall.
“Looking at the big picture of over 58,000 names on that wall, that meant there were a lot of other people who had to go through these things like my family had to go through,” David reflected. “I realized there were so many other brothers or sisters out there with someone’s name on the wall. I was not the only one.”
David flew home to his wife in Colorado. Recounting the trip for her felt like reliving his brother’s death 20 years earlier. Memories of his parents’ house and the recruiters’ car in the driveway rushed back into his brain. They broke down his manly facade and forced him to confront a painful reality he’d long tried to ignore.
“I think I have more healing to do.”
David embarked on a journey to discover what happened to Alan, and who he was as a Marine in combat. He reviewed letters his family had received 20 years earlier. Alan’s commanding officer, executive officer, platoon commander, and other fellow Marines responded to the family’s requests for more information in the wake of Alan’s death. Their letters painted a basic picture of the patrol where Alan died. David progressed slowly at first as the Marines directly connected to Alan’s final patrol proved difficult to find.
He finally achieved a breakthrough in 1989. An ad appeared in Leatherneck Magazine for an upcoming Force Recon Association reunion in Dallas, Texas. David explained who he was to the contact listed and received an invitation to attend. When the time came, David traveled to Texas, eager to learn what questions might be answered.
David discovered how small a world the Force Recon community lived in. Virtually everyone at the reunion either knew of or served with his brother. Marines who served with Alan on his first deployment in 3rd Recon Battalion told David of their shadowy missions in rubber boats off the Vietnamese coast in 1965. Many others told him stories from 1967, leading up to Alan’s death. David met Stan Chapman, a Navy corpsman. Chapman described his painful memories of caring for Alan’s remains once they were recovered, and his presence in the room when a group of Marines were summoned to positively identify him.
The patrol where Alan died was something out of the ordinary for Force Recon. A team of 17 Marines, dubbed Recon Team Petrify, went into an area swarming with North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers. The enemy presence was normal. The size of the patrol was not. Petrify consisted of more than double the number of Marines on a standard mission. Every member of the team was wounded. One other Marine besides Alan was also killed. A company-size “Bald Eagle” reactionary force was called to rescue Team Petrify. Multiple helicopters were shot down trying to extract them.
David arrived back in Colorado armed with information and contacts he’d never dreamed of making. Several weeks later, David found a package on his front doorstep. He cut open the box and removed an unlabeled cassette. A small note accompanied the tape, penned by one of the men he met in Dallas.
“David, I think you’ll find this interesting.”
He hustled to a cassette player and inserted the tape. The speaker crackled to life with pops and static as it turned from reel to reel. A grainy, scripted voice broke through in a southern accent.
“These interviews are narratives of a recon patrol originally inserted to set up an observation post in Elephant Valley northwest of Da Nang. The location is the Command Post, 1st Force Recon Company, 1st Marine Division, Quang Nam Province, Da Nang TAOR, Republic of Vietnam. The day is 23 October 1967. The subject is Recon Patrol Petrify. The classification of these interviews is secret until downgraded by proper authority.”
Different voices followed each other in succession. The interviews had been done in Vietnam mere days after Petrify returned to base. When they were recorded, David’s family had only recently been told of Alan’s death, and his body had still not yet been recovered. The tape played through interviews of four patrol members, all describing every detail they could remember surrounding the patrol, Alan’s death, and their terrifying extraction. David rewound the cassette and played it again. He still could not believe what he was hearing. Two years into his search, Alan’s story was finally coming into focus.
On Oct. 14, 1967, leaders from 1st Force called for volunteers to go out on a special mission. Another Recon team had inserted on a hill called Dong Top Mountain. In less than 24 hours, the Marines faced continuous enemy contact, taking a severe beating. First Force was tasked with relieving the team and continuing the patrol where they left off. Due to the known enemy presence, officers wanted a larger team and asked for volunteers. Seventeen Marines were thrown together into Team Petrify. Alan volunteered for the mission and acted as one of the senior members.
Petrify inserted the following day, picking up where the previous team left off. For over 24 hours they moved through the jungle around Dong Top without contact. Signs of the enemy, however, were omnipresent. In the afternoon of patrol’s second day, the team’s machine-gun crew opened fire when NVA soldiers rounded a bend in a trail. One soldier dropped dead, and a second enemy fell wounded. The two Marines advanced toward them. Grenade rounds launched from a M-79 grenade launcher suddenly exploded near them, driving them back.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Alan came sprinting through the underbrush. Screaming and hollering and firing his rifle, he drew enemy attention off the machine-gun team, allowing them to move to cover. When the M-79 rounds ceased, Alan ran forward to collect anything he could find. Blood and body parts covered the trail, but both NVA were gone. Alan and the gun team rejoined the main group. Alan exposed himself to more enemy fire to help the rest of the team break contact. The team harbored in the thickest brush they could find. Dusk settled into the defense with the Marines, and the last rays of sun faded to black. The night passed at an excruciating pace. Small arms fire punctuated the silence in all directions as the NVA scoured the mountainside.
Dawn of Oct. 17 brought little relief. At noon, the team decided they had to move. They located an area filled with huge rocks and set up their defense once more. The position offered ample cover and concealment. Unknown to the Marines, however, the NVA occupied a ridge above them. Rustling voices increased in all directions around Petrify. Suddenly, around 4 p.m., machine-gun fire raked the position and grenades rained down.
The opening enemy barrage devastated the Marines. Within seconds, Alan was dead. Two bullets ripped through his chest, and grenade fragments hit his head. LCpl Jerry DeGray fell also, shot twice in the head. Several other Marines were seriously wounded, and every member of the patrol suffered at least minor shrapnel wounds. Despite the damage inflicted, every surviving Marine returned fire. A ferocious roar enveloped the mountain as the Recon team battled with NVA surrounding them.
Huey gunships arrived on scene within 30 minutes. They worked over the ridge and surrounding jungle. An observation plane arrived, armed with an assortment of jets behind him. As the first flight of gunships expended their ordnance, jets took turns racing in with bombs. A second flight of Hueys arrived, pumping rockets and machine-gun fire into the jungle. A CH-46 approached at dusk to attempt an emergency medevac but was shot out of the zone. All the air support available seemed only to kick the hornet’s nest harder. Seeing the team’s predicament, officers called for a reaction force to get Petrify out. A company of grunts deployed to the base of Dong Top at dusk and began the long trek up the hill.
Helicopters arrived back over the team shortly after 7 a.m. the next morning. Hueys once again pounded the ridge and jungle floor. Even as more gunships and jets expended their ordnance, enemy fire struck three choppers attempting another extraction and forced them out of the zone.
Finally, around 9 a.m., the reaction force arrived on the hill. The grunts established their defense and worked toward the Recon team. A single squad finally battled through to reach them two hours later. Because of the amount of gear and wounded to get out, they split the patrol in half. The first group, with the most seriously wounded and the body of LCpl DeGray, moved out with the infantry squad. Nine Recon Marines remained behind with Alan’s body.
The firefight swelled as the morning wore on. NVA soldiers appeared from every direction with grenades, mortars and machine guns, hell bent on stopping the grunts and wiping out Petrify. After several hours, the remainder of the team still among the rocks decided their position was untenable. The grunts would not make it back. The team would have to make it to them.
They placed Alan’s body on a stretcher and moved out along a trail. The battle raging between the reaction force and NVA increased in ferocity as they neared the grunts’ position. A fever pitch of explosions roared through the jungle. Suddenly, tracer rounds crisscrossed the trail all around and among them. The Marines carrying Alan’s stretcher dropped his body and brought up their rifles. On one side of the trail, less than 20 meters away, a group of NVA fired machine guns and mortars. On the other side of the trail the same distance away, grunts fought back. The recon team hit the deck, trapped in the crossfire between the opposing forces. NVA grenades soared over and landed amongst the team. Marines scattered in all directions searching for cover, while Alan’s body remained unmoved on the stretcher. He lay less than 15 feet away from the rest of the team, but the enemy fire was so intense they could not move back to him.
The grunts advanced far enough to reach the team. They worked together to suppress the NVA, now mere feet away. One infantry Marine was killed in the fight and fell ahead of the rest, a stone’s throw away from Alan’s body. Two squads made multiple attempts to recover Alan and their own casualty but failed. Finally, the commanding officer on the hill directed all Marines to get back to the main line. They had to move off the mountain before the NVA overran their position.
A second reaction force arrived to relieve the first one and evacuate Dong Top. The going was incredibly slow as Marines worked down the steep terrain. They reached the bottom of the hill at dawn the following morning where everyone moved back to Da Nang. Two Marine infantry companies plus the heavy recon team lacked the numbers and firepower to overcome the NVA on Dong Top Mountain.
The contents of the cassette tape painted a vivid picture of the events surrounding Alan’s death, but for David, it was still incomplete. The interviews took place before his brother’s body was recovered. He remembered the funeral director refusing to open the casket at Alan’s funeral, and his father’s face after he’d seen the body. He remembered the words of the corpsman he’d met at the reunion when David insisted he tell him the details of what the NVA did to Alan’s body. The old Doc described the terrifying details of Alan’s mutilated corpse, and his disgust for the bastards who could do such things.
Over the next few years, David filled in Alan’s story. He attended two more Force Recon reunions. At one point, he met in person with a member of Team Petrify who was one of the seriously wounded on the patrol. David gave him copies of the cassette tape interviews, which the Marine never knew existed. David realized that because of his research, he actually knew more of the big picture surrounding the patrol than someone who was there on the ground. In less than five years following his visit to The Wall, David felt he’d accomplished his mission. His brother’s loss still tore at his heart. In some ways, even more so now than before, given the tragic details. Pride, however, overcame the grief. Alan was a loved and respected teammate within the recon community. For his actions on the patrol, Alan posthumously received a Bronze Star Medal with Valor device. As David closed the book on his research, he knew his brother’s death was not in vain and was remembered by more than just him.
Nearly three decades passed before David reopened the book, beginning a second chapter on his brother’s death. In 2018, David learned the name of the reaction force grunt killed in the same place as Alan. Lance Corporal Howard Ogden went down on Dong Top Mountain less than 50 feet from where Alan’s body was left. Though Alan eventually returned home, Ogden’s body disappeared. His status was officially listed as Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered. He posthumously received a Silver Star for his role in the battle.
David located Ogden’s memorial page on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Wall of Faces.
“Thank you, Marine,” he wrote in the comments. “You sacrificed your life in recovering my brother’s body. Sgt Alan T. Jensen, who in his first enlistment was also in 2/7. God Bless you.”
David received a surprising response from a lady named Maggie Ardery. Maggie was Ogden’s older sister. Just like David, Maggie devoted considerable effort to discovering what had happened to her brother on Dong Top. Maggie’s journey, however, continued to the present, as Ogden’s case remained active at the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Accounting Agency (DPAA).
David called Maggie and learned of her quest to see her brother return home. He sympathized and understood her pain in ways most people never could. He committed to help Maggie with her efforts and resumed his own journey from a different perspective.
David learned of the Virtual Vietnam Archive, hosted by Texas Tech University, where he located the command chronologies of other units involved in Team Petrify’s extraction. The documents revealed a broader picture and told the story of Alan’s recovery a week later.
Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 2 and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 265 provided the helicopters that forced the enemy back and attempted the emergency medevacs of Team Petrify. Their efforts came at a cost. Enemy fire shot up one CH-46 so badly it was forced to crash land at the base of Dong Top. Another Huey gunship suffered similar damage and crashed nearby. Part of the reaction force sent to the mountain peeled off to secure the area around the downed aircraft. Despite the crashed choppers and enemy mortar fire into the crash site, no Marines were injured.
The first helicopter from HMM-265 attempting a medevac of Petrify’s wounded on Oct. 17, however, did not fare so lucky. When the CH-46 arrived at dusk, Cpl Howard Morse lay on his stomach peering down through the “hell hole” in the center of the bird’s belly as a hoist lowered painfully slowly to the ground. NVA on the ridge opened fire. Bullets passed through the thin aluminum skin of the helicopter. One found its mark and entered Morse’s abdomen below his body armor. The pilot aborted the extraction, but it was already too late. Morse died in the hospital eight days later. To quantify the air wing’s efforts over the two-day period of Petrify’s extraction, VMO-2 reported that their Hueys fired 446 rockets and 54,500 rounds of machine-gun ammo.
Golf Co, 2/7, formed the initial reaction force to rescue Petrify. The battalion also provided a reaction force to rescue the recon team that Petrify was assembled to relieve. On the same day Alan was killed, in a separate area of Dong Top Mountain, another company from 7th Marines deployed to rescue a third surrounded recon team. In the end, the jungle into which Team Petrify walked swarmed with an estimated 800 NVA, and a full battalion of Marines was needed to get all the recon teams out.
Several days later, 2/7 returned to Dong Top to search for Alan and Howard Ogden. The battalion’s casualties mounted once again as grunts spread across the hill. On Oct. 24, Golf Co reached the area where the Marines went missing. Through the jungle, they saw a desecrated body tied to a tree. Mortars, grenades, and machine-gun fire greeted them as they moved to recover the body. The grunts withdrew, unable to force their way through. A squad returned the following morning to find the NVA moved out of the area overnight. They cut the binds from the tree and moved the body back to the command post. They immediately identified the remains as a recon Marine. Ogden was nowhere to be found.
David worked with Maggie to locate Marines who served with her brother, the same way others had helped him locate recon Marines who served with Alan. They contacted veterans from 2/7 and spoke with Marines who fought on Dong Top alongside Alan and Ogden. Maggie included David on all her correspondence with the DPAA. In July 2019, a DPAA team went to Dong Top Mountain looking for information on Ogden and other missing Americans. They searched the area, but did not excavate, planning to begin those efforts at a later date. Regrettably, all DPAA field activities abruptly halted with the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. As of this writing, the excavation on Dong Top has still not been rescheduled.
In September 2020, David and Maggie met in person at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire, N.M. Though they had been acquainted barely more than a year, they regarded each other as adopted siblings and embraced as if they were reuniting with a beloved old friend. They purchased memorial bricks engraved with the names of their brothers to be included in the memorial walkway. As Alan’s brick was lain down along the sidewalk, memories flooded David’s consciousness. His father’s face appeared as he told David of Alan’s death at their childhood home. David’s own face appeared, reflected in the memorial wall in D.C., as he determined to begin his journey. Over five decades of discovery led him here. He met many people who helped him along the way. He gained a new sister, one of those other siblings like him that he’d reflected on at the wall years before. He’d never imagine someone else out there might be enduring the same grief as he, losing their brother on the same mission and in the exact same place as his own.
David learned the man he knew as his big brother was no different to the Marines he served with; still a role model, a leader, and a friend. The time had still not come to close the book on the story of Team Petrify and Dong Top Mountain, only another chapter was set to close. Howard Ogden still needed to come home. Maggie’s family deserved the closure. As for Alan’s story, David felt whole. The healing he sought was finally found.
Author’s note: David’s journey, and this story, could not have happened without the help of many people over the five decades since David set out to learn what happened to his brother. David would like to recognize the following individuals. Semper Fi, and thank you!
Maj Charles Wilkins, USMC (Ret), who was a corporal on Team Petrify with Alan. Wilkins was one of the Marines recorded on the original cassette tape, and David finally connected with him over 50 years later in 2020.
Sgt Dave Thompson, USMC, who served with First Force Recon in 1968 and 1969. Thompson was featured in another story I wrote, “The Flying Ladder.” Thompson maintains his own website, containing a wealth of history on Force Recon in Vietnam. Thompson aided David in locating Maj Wilkins and orchestrated the call between them.
Maj Bill Picking, U.S. Army (Ret), and SgtMaj Jack Parsons, USMC (Ret), both of whom were enlisted Marines with the reaction force from Golf Co, 2/7, who battled the NVA on Dong Top Mountain and witnessed the events surrounding Alan and Howard Ogden’s deaths. David just connected with them in 2022.