11th MEU Marine awarded Navy Cross for legendary day during OIF

29 Jul 2004 | Cpl. Matthew S. Richards 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit

A hero is oftentimes thought to be one who overcomes some great obstacle for the betterment of his fellow man.  Such legends flow freely throughout our society, especially in the Marine Corps, and their memories offer motivation to the weakest and strongest.

First Sgt. Justin D. Lehew doesn't believe Marines are heroes.

"There are heroes in life, but we are not it. We're just Marines," Lehew, company first sergeant, Company C, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), said after recalling the events of a dreadful day over a year ago.

The story of Jessica Lynch was well publicized, but the story of the Marines who came upon her unit's position an hour after the ambush, and the hellish battle those Marines endured that day, isn't as well known.

Lehew, a gunnery sergeant at the time, was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions that day, March 23, 2003.  More than a year later and in the same country in which he earned it, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force, personally presented the medal to Lehew on July 24.

"This is something you'll probably never see again," said Conway, to the MEU Marines that witnessed the Navy Cross being awarded.  "This is second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor."

Lehew was a platoon sergeant for Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Task Force Tarawa, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  They were riding their way through Iraq in amphibious assault vehicles.

"I can remember the day pretty vividly," he said.

Just outside of An Nasiriyah, his unit was the foremost unit overtaking the area where 8,000 Iraqi soldiers were thought to be surrendering.

They received a distress call from American soldiers in the area.  It didn’t make sense to them because his Marines were supposed to be the foremost unit there.

"I jumped on the ground and started asking the Marines if they had seen any soldiers around," Lehew said. "They said they hadn't seen anything."

After pushing forward and searching for 2 1/2 kilometers they began to see burnt Army vehicles and after a little further, soldiers began to appear.

"I saw one pop up in the field we were in, then another popped up on the other side waiving his arms. Then we saw soldiers popping up all over the field waiving their arms," he said.

The Marines just happened to come upon them an hour after the soldiers were ambushed.  The Marines did their best to help the injured, two of which were critically injured, while under enemy fire.

"I put my corpsmen with the Army medics, and the soldiers were saying the reason many of them were alive was because of my Marines.  I think it was because of their medics doing such a great job," he said. "This wasn’t a (combat arms unit), but they did what they could for an hour until we arrived."

Lehew then had his Marines help the best way they could.  They started "lighting up" the Iraqi infantry so they could help evacuate the injured.

"An (Army) warrant officer came up to me saying he was missing half his soldiers," Lehew said.  "That turned out to be the group that was captured including Jessica Lynch."

Wasting no time, the order to press into An Nasiriyah came.  While Marine Corps tanks were busy engaging the enemy in the outskirts of the city, the AAVs pushed into the city.

"Our job was to take the southern bridge," he said.

As soon as they moved into the streets a white van with a blue stripe pulled out in front of them and fired a rocket-propelled grenade.  The thin-skinned AAVs swerved, successfully avoiding the RPG.  The AAVs were all alone once they arrived at the bridge.

"Once we got on top of the bridge it got quiet for a minute. Then all at once it seemed like Armageddon opened up from all angles of the streets," he said.

There was an Iraqi ambulance that was careening toward the front of the convoy. Lehew fired a warning shot but the ambulance refused to stop, so the Marines opened fire on the cab.  But when it stopped, and the Marines searched it, they found six Iraqis clad in black.  Then more Iraqis in black began jumping out of cars after careening toward a weapons stockpile under the bridge.

"Swarms of Iraqis started converging on our positions," Lehew said.  "There had to have been hundreds."

Many Iraqis started firing RPG's out of windows, doorways and cars.

"They were using women holding babies as spotters," Lehew said.  "But we had to hold the bridge at all costs."

Reinforcements for Lehew's unit eventually came -- Marine Corps tanks. 

"I jumped up on the turret of the tank and peeled off the Marine's earpiece and told him to fire on a building that RPGs were coming out of," he said.  "And when I jumped off, no sooner than my feet touched the ground the building was leveled."

It was right next to a mosque that was left untouched.

Lehew ran back to his Marines while under heavy fire the entire time.

"Then I remember our driver, who was from Georgia, said 'Hey look at those guys going the wrong way with their ramp open,'" Lehew said.

It was an AAV from another company whose mission was to take the northern bridge.  Its back ramp had been blown open. 

"I ran 70 meters to the back of that AAV," he said. "The cargo hatch was blown in."
On the way to the northern bridge, the AAV's unit had stopped for "surrendering" Iraqis who surprisingly ambushed them by turning around with AK-47s.  Other Iraqis joined in with RPGs as Iraqi artillery, which had been plotted beforehand, rained down on them.

This particular AAV had tried to come back into the city with casualties to evacuate but an Iraqi with an RPG jumped behind it and fired into its back.
Lehew and his corpsman began to pull out anyone he could.

"When I got to the vehicle there was a young doc from Puerto Rico following me," he said.  "He said 'I'm here as long as you're here gunny.'"

While still under continuous fire, Lehew and his corpsman were hurriedly pulling bodies and body parts out but they began to lose faith that anybody in the AAV had survived.

"We were about to leave the vehicle.  I stepped into the center of the vehicle to gather the weapons and clear the radios when I heard a Marine gasp," he said.

The Marine was underneath the AAV's hatch and was badly injured.  The Marine had been reaching for his rifle when the AAV was hit. 

"Doc held his head as we ran him back to our vehicle," he said.

That was one of many wounded the two began to carry back.  They soon moved them all inside a nearby house to a casualty collection point set up by the battalion executive officer. 

There were casualties everywhere and even though the front half of the house was secured they didn't have enough Marines to defend the casualties.

"You could hear Iraqis in the back side of the house," Lehew said. "All I had was wounded Marines, no weapons.  So I helped stabilize their wounds and I ran out to gather up weapons."
After gathering some weapons, Lehew went on a search for Marines. 

"I grabbed two of the wounded Marines," he said. "I grabbed an M-16 and racked a round.  I said 'If anybody comes through that way, shoot them.  If they come this way, don't shoot them.'"

Lehew distinctly remembers a Marine he saw who was blown completely out of an AAV.  He hobbled up to Lehew with several pretty bad injuries.

"This kid came up to me and said 'I can still fight gunny,'" Lehew sighed. "So I put a rifle in the kid's hands."

The intense fire never seemed to let up.  Lehew knew he had to get all these men out of there.
"I started screaming over the radio net to get a medivac," he said.  "Finally we started seeing birds in the air."

He saw the several helicopters overhead and began to set up a hasty landing zone.

"That pilot needs to get a Distinguished Flying Cross because he landed in one of the hottest LZ's with power lines and poles all around," he said.

Then Lehew, his doc and a few other Marines began running casualties "a couple football fields" to the helicopter.

"The last thing I saw was a Marine's feet hanging out the back of the bird," he said.
Lehew and his Marines loaded back in the AAVs, and with the tanks firing to the left and AAVs firing to the right, they sped back out of "Ambush Alley."  They headed to the northern bridge to support the other AAV company.

"They had all the advantage points.  They were firing so many weapons from the rooftops and streets, it's a miracle nobody died in that convoy," Lehew said.

On their way back, they started seeing burnt up shells of AAVs every hundred yards. They stopped to assist that unit.

After the dust had cleared and the battle was done, Lehew and his men had evacuated 77 casualties from the scene.

He can remember that there were some Marines that all he could do to help them before they were evacuated was to "sit with them, hold their hand and tell them they'd be alright."

A couple days later, around midnight, they were told the Fedayeen were mounting a 2,000-man counteroffensive against them.

"We were very depleted on ammo and chow, but my Marines still had the attitude of 'Bring it on!'" Lehew exclaimed.  "I was lucky enough to go through all this with one of the greatest group of Marines ever."

They never had to fight that battle because Marine artillery broke up the offensive before it ever made it to Lehew's men.

Lehew feels the events of that day showed the steadfast courage of this generation of Marines.

"I've heard some say this video game generation is weak, and that they could never live up to the legend of those at Tarawa and such," Lehew said.  "These Marines fought more courageously than I could have imagined.  Right now, the Marine Corps is the best it's ever been and it will only get better."

He holds no less confidence in his current Marines with Co. C, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, than what he holds for those he went to war with.

"These guys are just as good," he said.  "The Marine Corps is built upon the back of the infantry rifleman."

Lehew believes the Marine Corps' greatness comes from Marines pitted in days like this one and the camaraderie that comes from fighting side by side.

"Every Marine came into the Marine Corps to fight.  They either have something to prove to themselves or someone else," he said. "It's the kids that can't hold their personal life together that win battles.  It's the kid the platoon teases, or the kid that his buddies tease because he shoots marksman, that holds off half the Fedayeen.  His biggest fear is not that he'll fail, but that he'll let his buddies down.  What makes us elite is that we don't want to let each other down."

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Colonel Tom Siverts is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in August 1989. He achieved a commission as a Second Lieutenant through the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program following his graduation from the University of Virginia in May 1999. Colonel Siverts has deployed in support of Operations DESERT SHIELD, DESERT STORM, IRAQI FREEDOM, and ENDURING FREEDOM. His other operational deployments include serving with Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/8, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU); BLT 3/8, 22d MEU; BLT 2/8, 26th MEU, and Task Force 61/2.

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Lieutenant Col. Steven M. Sprigg
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LtCol Sprigg was born in Parkersburg, WV. LtCol Sprigg enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in September 2004 and recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC. LtCol Sprigg was selected for the Enlisted Commissioning Program and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in March 2008. He was designated a Naval Aviator in February 2011 and reported to HMLAT-303 for training as an AH-1W pilot. LtCol Sprigg is currently serving as the Executive Officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Camp Pendleton, California.

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Sergeant Major Travis L. DeBarr
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